Progressive presidential campaigns are an exercise in one-upmanship. Millionaire tax? How about an “ultra-millionaire tax?” Forgive some student loans? Let’s wipe it all away.
For the dwindling slate of candidates, the game continues—and so should our scrutiny, especially of ideas for federal programs that have dismal records.
For example, former Vice President Joe Biden says he will “work with states” to offer pre-kindergarten to all 3- and 4-year old children. Not to be outdone, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) proposed “universal childcare and pre-kindergarten.
Yet Washington’s preschool programs are a mess.
Last fall, federal investigators posed as applicants to Head Start centers around the country. They found that some centers altered investigators’ applications or encouraged applicants to ignore eligibility requirements in order to qualify for services.
These were not the first such findings. Head Start centers, federally funded preschool and daycare centers operated by school districts and non-profit organizations, have a sad history of fraud and lapses in safety that put children at risk.
The 2019 investigation followed other General Accounting Office findings of fiscal malfeasance from 2003 and 2010. In 2013, an Ohio Head Start grantee awarded some $66,000 to employees in the form of gift cards. In 2017, another operator in Pine Bluff, Ark., misused some $729,000 on unallowable expenses, including salaries for individuals that did not work at the Head Start location.
Proper care for young children—especially children from low-income families—is crucial. Research finds that a child’s “early years are foundational” and that it’s more effective to help young children develop emotional and intellectual skills than try to make up for the lack of such abilities later in life. Thus parents, teachers, and lawmakers should always strive to provide high-quality care to vulnerable children.
Head Start, though, is not the answer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a longitudinal study that found students lost any intellectual gains from Head Start by third grade and demonstrated no “clear pattern” of positive or negative impacts on children. Meanwhile, federal taxpayers spend some $9,800 per year on each Head Start child, nearly the same amount that is spent by state, local, and federal taxpayers combined per student in K-12 schools in states such as Florida and Texas.
Worse, Head Start has a poor record of child safety. After recurring incidents of “physical abuse, humiliation and neglect” in centers operating in Jefferson County, Ky., recently, acting Head Start Director Anne Linehan said the violations “make one sick to one’s stomach.” One Head Start teacher flipped over a child’s cot in order to wake them up from a nap. Another employee hit a little girl so hard that she “hit her head on a piece of furniture and [bruised] her lip.”
These are not isolated incidents. In 2009 and 2010, federal investigators reviewed 24 grantees across eight states and found that “none complied fully with Federal Head Start or State requirements to protect children from unsafe materials or equipment.”
Most did not follow the proper procedures for conducting background checks on prospective employees. Large school districts, including Jefferson County (Kentucky’s largest district) and Prince George’s County, Maryland forfeited Head Start grants after investigations into abuse.
Lyndon Johnson created Head Start 55 years ago to help prepare disadvantaged children for school and assist their parents in raising a family. The persistent achievement gap between students from low-income families and their peers—along with the research cited above finding no “clear pattern” of benefits—demonstrates that Head Start has failed to achieve its primary goal. That, combined with recurring reports of financial fraud and child abuse, should be enough for taxpayers and families to demand significant changes.
Lawmakers should turn resources over to parents so that they can decide how best to care for their children. The federal Child Care Development Block Grant offers a model. In that program, parents receive a voucher to pay for services for their child. Expanding Head Start in its current form adds money to a program fraught with problems.
Perhaps lawmakers should compete with each other by committing to reducing child abuse and fiscal waste in preschool. There’s a race we would like to see.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times