Head Start: a noble idea with poor results

The people of Utah understand families and children as well as or better than most. So it comes as no surprise that we would have a vested interest in Utah children who may be struggling at an early age. Head Start is a preschool program intended to help disadvantaged children. At first blush, this “Great Society” program appears to be just another liberal government program with good intentions. But it has gone wrong, terribly wrong, and has wasted billions of dollars to boot.

The 2010 Head Start Impact Study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sevices, tracked the progress of 3- and 4-year-olds from their entrance into Head Start through kindergarten and the first grade. Overall, the program appears to have little or no effect on the children it purports to help.

For the 4-year old group, compared with children not given access to Head Start, the program failed to improve the abilities of participating children on 41 academic measures, including language and math skills and literacy. The impact was also very minimal for 70 out of 71 socio-emotional, health and parenting outcomes.

Overall, as David Muhlhausen of the Heritage Foundation explained, “Head Start failed to have an effect on 110 out of 112 outcome measures for the 4-year-old group. For the 3-year-old group, Head Start failed to have an impact on 106 out of 112 measures, with five beneficial impacts and one harmful impact.”

Head Start’s national budget of $7.24 billion in fiscal year 2010 is overwhelming, but President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 Head Start budget request of $8.22 billion easily surpasses that figure. At the very least, immediate cost cutting measures need to be implemented to reduce the Head Start budget by at least 20 percent.

The current acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Jeffrey Zients, wholeheartedly believes that empirical evidence should move policymaking. He recently said that “too many important programs have never been formally evaluated. And when they have, the results of those evaluations have not been fully taken into the decision-making process, at the level of either budgetary decisions or management practices.”

At a cost of more than $7,000 for each of Utah’s 5,400 children participating in Head Start ($38 million total), no matter how well intentioned the program may be, it should be obvious to even the most empathetic citizen that this government boondoggle needs to be dramatically scaled back, and whatever funds remain should be given to each state, which can then decide how best to help its disadvantaged children.