Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige often cited the “achievement gap” as the most compelling issue in contemporary education. The “achievement gap” is the divide between the educational success of whites and Asians when compared with the success of blacks and Hispanics.
“Gaps in school readiness in minority and non-minority children are substantial,” said Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. A recent study—cited in Brookings’ “Closing Acheivement Gaps”—of three- and four-year-olds showed that 85% of blacks scored lower than the average white child. Other data has found that the educational level of a 17 year-old black or Hispanic is equivalent to the level of a 13-year-old white student.
Policymakers have long thought the solution to the achievement gap to be in early childhood education. Through early childhood education programs, such as Head Start, at-risk children could enter school with the same educational foundation as their peers, advocates of such programs claimed. Head Start has existed for forty years—at a total cost of $66 billion—and the achievement gap has not closed. The White House now wants to alter the administration of Head Start, and the call has prompted debate on the proper direction for the program.
Head Start functions on a federal-to-local level. Local public schools, community centers, and faith-based organizations operate the 19,000 Head Start centers. The Department of Health and Human Services funds these centers, which serve nearly one million children at a cost of $6.6 billion a year, according to statistics from the Heritage Foundation. The centers serve multiple roles, providing children with health and social services in addition to their educational function.
The Bush plan would fund the program on a federal-to-state level using block grants. The state, as a result, would have more flexibility and the discretion to fund centers as seen fit. Critics charge that the block-grant system would bloat bureaucracy and hinder accountability.
Opponents of the president’s plan fear that replacing the current system with block grants would lead to a decrease in funding. “The politics of block grants are well-known,” said Cliff Johnson of the National League of Cities where he is the Executive Director of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. In the course of its forty years Head Start has developed a “strong brand name,” according to Johnson, and lies “beyond the reach of budget cutters.” Block grants would open the door for cuts.
Cynthia Jones, the Special Projects Coordinator at the National Head Start Association, also fears that block grants would result in reduced funding. In addition, funding under block grants would be at the whim of those in office. Head Start has a great record, says Jones, and its funding should not be jeopardized, especially when the program would benefit from expansion. “Putting more dollars into early Head Start would be very beneficial,” she said.
Opponents of block grants want any reform of Head Start to occur at the community-level
“Head Start should remain at the local level,” said Steve Burkholder, the mayor of Lakewood, Colorado. Lakewood, a suburb of Denver, has instituted comprehensive early childhood education services. In addition to providing health services and two meals a day to its Head Start recipients, it provides outreach to the parents.
“We meet monthly with parents,” Burkholder said.
Examples such as Lakewood’s reinforce the idea that Head Start does not need major reform. Head Start is not broken or fundamentally flawed,” said Johnson, who believes in community-level reforms without funding changes.
Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center echoed his sentiments. “I think we have a good program, and I think we should improve it,” she said. She also shares his reform strategy. “There’s nothing magical about state-level control,” she said, advocating more local flexibility.
Supporters of the status quo are hard-pressed, however, to provide evidence that Head Start produces results. This lack of evidence motivates reformers to seek a better solution. Many states have implemented pre-kindergarten programs that have shown better results than Head Start.
“State pre-K programs may be doing a better job than Head Start,” said Grover Whitehurst, Director of Education Sciences and the Department of Education.
“We have an obligation to do the best we can,” he said.
Standing in the way of any reform or demonstration program is politics, according to Douglas Besharov [pictured] of the American Enterprise Institute. “Political argument is that we can’t even experiment,” he said.
Today, Head Start faces much more competition than in the past. Those who are income-eligible for Head Start have more choices available to them. Among income-eligible four year-olds, 63% percent enroll in Head Start. Thirty-five percent attend pre-K or kindergarten or receive full-time subsidized child care. The remainder receives care from relatives. At the end of the Eighties, the bulk of child-care spending funded Head Start. Today it makes up about a third to a fourth of child-care spending.
“The world is changing,” Besharov said. “The place of Head Start is changing as well.”
Research on the effects of Head Start is ongoing. In 2006, the National Head Start Impact Study will conclude. The study, authorized in the 1998 Head Start reauthorization, will examine the effect of Head Start on school readiness.
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.