Re-Hyping the Head Start Program

The U.S. Senate may be getting ready to ignore a proposal offered by its House colleagues that might have brought the prospect of greater academic success to thousands of school children.

For nearly four decades, the Head Start program, one of the most popular, yet failed education programs in U.S. history, has been refunded each year with little or no debate. Despite an annoying lack of evidence that the government’s pre-school program for underprivileged kids does any long-term good, the program’s defenders have so far successfully shouted down anyone who dares to point out that the emperor has no clothes.

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This year, prior to Head Start’s reauthorization, the Bush administration decided it would see whether lawmakers are ready to face the facts. Citing research that the program isn’t living up to its original expectations, the administration began working with allies in the House of Representatives on a major overhaul in both funding and execution. One of the reforms coming out of this process passed the House by a single vote: creating a voluntary option for states to take over the program and administer it themselves.

In other words, House members want Head Start to overcome one of the most serious problems with one-size-fits-all programs from the federal government: the inflexibility of such programs in the face of differing situations and circumstances in different regions of the country. The power of this rule might be broken in Head Start’s case, if states had the power to adjust it to suit their individual needs.

Originally, the bill working its way through the House provided that any state that wished to administer the Head Start program itself would be able to do so. But howls of protest from a powerful lobby and its congressional allies forced the bill’s authors to reduce that proposal to a pilot program: Just eight states would be allowed to take over the program and distribute Head Start funds as they see fit. To allay fears that the move might be aimed at destroying the program entirely, proponents agreed to guarantee three years of funding at current levels.

We’re not talking about pennies, here. Today, the Head Start program services 900,000 children at an average cost of $6,900 per student — a total of over $6.2 billion, up sharply from $2.2 billion in 1993. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how a program so funded could develop a powerful lobby that is, in the words of one of America’s foremost education experts Chester Finn, “vehemently opposed to any system that holds this cherished program to account for its results.”

As of this writing, the Head Start lobby may be winning. Two alternatives to the House plan have been introduced, one by Senate Democrats, another by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., neither of which include the plan to allow states a shot at running the program.

If no one in the U.S. Senate stands up to the Head Start lobby and explains to the American people how a program everyone loves can fail, one of the most promising chances in 38 years to truly help America’s underprivileged children will be missed.

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Neil Block is managing editor of Michigan Education Digest, a service of Michigan Education Report, published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.