May 31, 2010 | Commentary on Education
Until recently, hardly anyone was questioning Head Start's importance.
In the Milwaukee area alone, more than 4,000 students are enrolled in Head Start. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) has said, the program is "important" to the "future success" of low-income children.
Head Start, created in 1965, is intended to provide disadvantaged children a pre-school boost. But before now, no one knew whether the program, after a total taxpayer investment exceeding $170 billion, was living up to its promise.
In the late 1990s, Congress finally mandated a national evaluation to measure its effectiveness. This year, the results were finally released: Former Head Start participants were no better off than their non-Head Start peers by the end of first grade.
Using random assignment, the national evaluation placed almost 5,000 children eligible for Head Start into two treatment conditions based on a lottery. The children who won the lottery were awarded "free" (taxpayer paid) access to pre-kindergarten Head Start services; the others either didn't attend preschool or sought out other alternatives.
The national evaluation tracked the progress of 3- and 4-year-olds entering Head Start through the first grade. Compared to similarly situated children, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants on 41 measures. The language, literacy, math skills and school performance of participating children all failed to improve.
Alarmingly, access to Head Start for the 3-year-old group actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those who participated in Head Start.
Ineffectiveness is bad enough. But new information reveals rampant fraud within the program.
A recently released Government Accountability Office study found several cases of underreporting of income and falsification of addresses by Head Start employees to "qualify" children for the program. The GAO also found these employees encouraged families to misrepresent or falsify income on enrollment forms and make claims that a working parent was unemployed.
For years, liberals, including Moore, have championed expanding access to government-sponsored preschool, often pointing to a handful of small-scale preschool programs that existed decades ago and were found to yield long-term benefits. However, these results have never been replicated and implemented on a national scale.
Despite this, proponents want Head Start expanded to allow more children access to subsidized programs. The Obama administration has championed Head Start by appropriating billions more in federal funding and continues to assert a need for more federal subsidies for preschool and child care generally.
But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 89% of working mothers have regular early education or care arrangements. More than three-quarters of 4-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of preschool.
Increasing access to government preschool provides no new benefit for low-income families. But it will create an unnecessary middle-class subsidy, adding to American families' tax burden. At a time when most parents worry about finding a job, why further burden taxpayers by expanding the ineffective Head Start program?
If policymakers truly want to help the 4,000-plus Milwaukee area preschoolers, they should empower families to choose preschool options other than a federal program shown to have "zero lasting impact." Instead of consigning children to a 1960s-era relic, Head Start should be reformed to give families control of their $7,500 share to enroll in a preschool program of choice. That would be more likely to provide a genuine benefit for low-income children.
First appeared in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel