May 31, 2010
By Lindsey Burke and David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.
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.
Lindsey Burke is a policy analyst in Domestic Policy Studies and David Muhlhausen is a senior policy analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation
First appeared in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel
Will Skillman Fellow in Education
Read More >>
Request an interview >>
Please complete the following form to request an interview with a Heritage expert.
Please note that all fields must be completed.
David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D.
Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Heritage's daily Morning Bell e-mail keeps you updated on the ongoing policy battles in Washington and around the country.
The subscription is free and delivers you the latest conservative policy perspectives on the news each weekday--straight from Heritage experts.
The Morning Bell is your daily wake-up call offering a fresh, conservative analysis of the news.
More than 200,000 Americans rely on Heritage's Morning Bell to stay up to date on the policy battles that affect them.
Rush Limbaugh says "The Heritage Foundation's Morning Bell is just terrific!"
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) says it's "a great way to start the day for any conservative who wants to get America back on track."
Sign up to start your free subscription today!
The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors. Heritage, founded in February 1973, has a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.
Our mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense. Read More
© 2014, The Heritage Foundation Conservative policy research since 1973