A threat by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to separate the city of Detroit some $50 million in Head Start grant money follows allegations of misspending, missing equipment and “chronic under enrollment” among other deficiencies. While I don’t see the downside, city officials are frantically scrambling to repair the damage and retain management of the program.
I anticipate that trying to stop the Head Start steamroller will inevitably draw hostile fire. It is, after all, intended to break the cycle of poverty by raising the social and educational proficiency of low-income preschool children. That’s commendable. At best, however, Head Start has proven to be a costly government-run social program that produces marginal benefits. The government should “end, not mend” Detroit’s involvement.
Head Start is trumpeted as a federal government cure-all for the extreme problems of 3- and 4-year old children from economically deprived families. From 1965 to this day, it is regarded as one of the few enduring successes of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
Participants receive a wide-ranging menu of amenities, including health, medical, nutritional and social services. If kids are healthy, have good attitudes and high self-esteem, it is presumed, they will more easily acquire requisite vocabulary and reading skills before entering K-12.
This intense preparation, boosters contend, may also derail an endless stream of problem-prone youth on the way to idleness or prison. However there’s no evidence that the promise of the program has long-term benefits.
Federal, state and independent research reveals pre-school program participants didn’t perform any better or worse than non-participating students. Any positive effects of Head Start diminish over time, usually disappearing by the third or fourth grade.
One reason the benefits are not sustained through elementary school has to do with the sorry state of urban education. Few public schools can afford to provide the kind of comprehensive services and special attention Head Start commits to poor children. It should surprise no one that the early gains of Head Start wash out soon after they collide with the educational crisis in Detroit schools.
The social environments of Head Start children contribute to the calamity. Too many of these kids live in a single-parent, female-headed household. The mother is likely to have limited skills and few employment options. That usually means the lessons children learn in Head Start are not reinforced or sustained by the struggling parent, who out of necessity devotes most of her time to eking out a meager existence.
By contrast, most middle-class children get an early start as a matter of course. They tend to live in homes that support, strengthen and increase the academic stimulation they receive at school.
The cold, hard truth is that we simply cannot immunize children against the destructive forces of childhood poverty in just one year. Head Start’s almost 46 years of existence hasn’t given us reason to think otherwise. It not only failed to make a difference, it has been a bad investment.
The federal government spends about $8 billion a year on the program run by HHS, not the Department of Education. Since mastering the delicate nuances of early education is not its primary focus, Head Start is generally viewed as another way to tax traditional two-parent and single-earner working families to pay for what amounts to day-care for the poor.
Worse, grants are often used as patronage troughs from which selected church leaders and service providers feed and dispense make-work jobs in return for political support.
Because of its low rate of return, a better case can be made that Head Start funding be directed to a reformed K-12 model where it can have more influence in shaping the lives of deprived children. It makes no sense to leave intact an expensive social program that leads poor children to another dead end.