Kathleen McCartney, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, weighs in on the future of Head Start in a column “Cutting Head Start is Bad Fiscal Policy” posted on CNN’s website. The early education program for children from low-income families is entangled in the stand-off in Congress over the federal budget for fiscal year 2011, which started October 1, 2010. The federal government is operating under a series of continuing resolutions, the latest of which will expire Friday unless Congress takes further action.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives recently approved a measure that would cut $61 billion from the federal budget over the rest of FY11. Among the cuts in the House bill is a decrease of almost $1.1 billion for Head Start, which would mean 218,000 children would be dropped from the program. Some 2,900 Massachusetts children would be at risk. The Democrat-controlled Senate voted down both the House bill and an alternate measure from Democrats that included a $200 million increase for Head Start, to $7.4 billion from $7.2 billion in FY10.
“There is ample evidence that early childhood education more than pays for itself,” McCartney writes. “Too often policy does not reflect evidence, perhaps because we do not know how to employ data in a democracy. Policy privileges values over research, especially when new funding streams are involved. So instead of investing in early education, we invest in remedial education, grade retention and the juvenile justice system — the not-so-hidden costs of school failure. It turns out that these interventions during the school years cost a lot more than prevention efforts during early childhood, and the return on the investments is not as great.”
McCartney is also the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development at Harvard. (Read ”On the Record with Dean Kathleen McCartney.”)
McCartney addresses the debate over the effectiveness of Head Start and acknowledges the “rather modest” results for standardized achievement and cognitive tests.
“But they don’t tell the whole story,” McCartney writes. “Head Start children score higher on a measure of young adult success that includes high school graduation, college attendance, idleness, crime teen parenthood and health status. And the effect is large; in fact, Head Start closes one-third of the gap between children from families with median incomes and those with bottom quartile incomes…. Children participating in Head Start are less obese, more likely to be immunized and less likely to smoke as adults. This saves us money, too….
“During the war on poverty, we cared about the unequal access to educational opportunities that begin at birth; we understood that education is a civil right; and we knew that education was the only road to achieving the American dream. In light of today’s budget constraints, we must also care about cost-benefit analyses. Head Start makes the grade on all counts,” McCartney concludes. “The budget deficit is real. Congress will have to make tough choices in the years ahead; however, I worry that the congressional budget recommendations reflect ideology more than evidence. Cutting a cost-effective education program such as Head Start is neither sound fiscal policy nor sound education policy.”
In related news, The Future of Children, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, makes the case for Head Start in “Head Start: To Cut or Not to Cut?” on its blog.
“Head Start provides a critical entry point for services other than education including health care, oral health services, parenting skills, and behavior modification,” the blog notes. “If Head Start programs disappear or services are substantially reduced without corollary program development, it is unclear whether children would attend other preschools or programs, and if so, what the quality of those services would be. As the government considers its next steps regarding Head Start, let’s reorient the tone of the conversation to one that focuses on improving early childhood education for American children. Instead of thinking only about cuts, let’s also think about the ways we can redirect funding to support effective early childhood education in the United States.”