Examiner Editorial: It’s time to face the failure of Head Start 

Among Washington, D.C.’s most sacred of cows is the Head Start program, which has enjoyed support from across the political spectrum since its inception in 1965. Today, even otherwise poles-apart politicians like Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama agree that spending billions of tax dollars on Head Start is a good thing.

Bush and Obama also agree on something else about Head Start: Taxpayers need not be told that it is a colossal failure, a fact officials have known since at least 2006.

Washington has spent hundreds of billions on Head Start as a Great Society program designed to insure that at-risk kids from poor and minority communities start school on an equal footing with those from other neighborhoods. For years, nobody questioned Head Start’s efficacy.

But in 1997, a Clinton administration advisory panel recommended that funding be approved for the Head Start Impact Study. Unlike sporadic previous efforts to measure Head Start’s effectiveness, the study was “to be the best that evaluation science could offer to determine the degree to which Head Start worked, for whom, at what points in schooling and for what outcomes,” according to panel member Russ Whitehurst, now at the Brookings Institution. A contract for the study was issued in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which manages Head Start.

By 2006, work on data for kindergarten and first-grade students was completed and made available to Health and Human Services. The results remained buried in bureaucracy, however, even as Bush and Obama successively pumped increasingly more billions of tax dollars into Head Start.

But now the results are finally available. As Brookings’ Whitehurst said, the study found that Head Start “has no demonstrable impact on [students’] academic, socio-emotional or health status at the end of first grade.”

That’s right. If you were a mother who lost the lottery, couldn’t get your child into Head Start and had to care for her at home, she’d be no worse off at the end of first grade than she would have been if she got into Head Start. No wonder release was delayed for several years as “contractors were pushed to try different analytic techniques in the hope that something positive for Head Start could be found,” Whitehurst said.

Head Start is a bust, but the bureaucrats who manage it zealously protect it as politicians in both parties lavishly fund it. And Head Start is just one of 69 closely related federal preschool programs that consume more than $25 billion annually.

Now that we know it’s not “for the children,” why are we spending these billions?

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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