A Second Start for Head Start

November 30, 2015

Nothing is more important to the future of our society – nor more critical to fulfilling our national commitment to equal opportunity – than the care and upbringing of the next generation. This is not a concern that cuts along partisan lines. Both sides of the ideological divide endeavor to craft public policies aimed at strengthening families, supporting parents, and giving every child a fair shot at the American Dream.

But how exactly we do that is a subject of serious disagreement between the left and the right.

Whereas conservatives promote policies that empower parents with the freedom and resources to choose what works best for them and their families, harnessing the power and problem-solving capacity of civil society and the free-enterprise economy, Democrats prefer government-run, one-size-fits-all programs.

Hence President Obama's call to enroll 6 million more children in national, government-run preschool programs, and Hillary Clinton's roughly identical plan. Both of these proposals simply double down on the unsuccessful federal preschool program that has failed low-income 3- and 4-year-olds for decades: Head Start.

This government-run preschool program, Democrats will tell you, is a great investment for taxpayers. "For every dollar we put into high-quality early childhood education," President Obama claimed this past April, "we get $7 back."

But as noted in a Washington Post Fact Check, the figures in Obama's claim are almost entirely based on a study of just one preschool program from fifty years ago (Ypsilanti, Michigan's Perry Preschool program). Which is to say, the President's 7-to-1 figure isn't wrong per se, it's just shamelessly misleading.

Proponents of the Head Start status quo cling to studies of the Perry Preschool program because all of the other social science research shows that early childhood education programs run by the federal government are a terrible investment for taxpayers.

The most recent study – which was commissioned by President Obama's own Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 – examined the efficacy of Head Start in particular, finding that whatever benefits children initially gain from Head Start disappear by the time students reach the third grade.

Other empirical studies of government-run preschool programs have been even more disappointing.

For instance, a study of Quebec's pre-k program found that recipients eventually suffered "a significant worsening in self-reported health and in life satisfaction" and a "contemporaneous increase in criminal behavior."

Conservatives do not claim to have all the answers when it comes to early education policy. If anything, the available research and the lessons of experience teach us that the federal government does a poor job running our nation's early education programs. At best, such centrally-planned programs are a waste of money. At worst, they are harmful to our children, families, and communities.

Results that disappear by third grade are not good enough. Instead of simply throwing more money at the problem, to prop up and expand what we know to be a broken model, we should send Head Start's $8.6 billion dollar budget directly to the states, empowering those who are closest to the families and communities receiving these funds to fashion solutions that actually help low-income children in their state.

That's exactly the approach we take in the Head Start Improvement Act, which we recently introduced in the House and Senate.

Our bill would eliminate Head Start's federal bureaucracy and block grant its full $8.6 billion budget to states and other eligible grantees (like the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico).

This would give states and grantees full flexibility to spend their federal pre-K dollars. They could even just give the money directly to families in the form of vouchers to defray the costs of private pre-school tuition.

There would still be a role for the federal government to play in early childhood education under the Head Start Improvement Act. The Comptroller General would be charged with submitting a report to Congress comparing how the states are using their funds. Unencumbered by a one-size-fits-all model imposed on them by bureaucrats in Washington, states could learn from each other's successes and setbacks, allowing the best ideas to come to the fore.

Few decisions are more intimate than how a family chooses to care for their young. Some may opt for a public program, while others seek out a private day care facility. And of course many rely heavily on help from family, friends, and neighbors.

Washington should respect these decisions and empower parents, communities, and states by making it easier to develop and tailor these unique solutions. Our Head Start Improvement Act is a step in that direction.