Head Start has to keep its Federal Support

Data suggests that enrollment in Head Start is not determinative of whether a child is a successful elementary school student or whether a child is a higher-functioning learner through elementary grades.  Hence, those waiting for Head Start to be the silver bullet to end the achievement gap are sentenced to wait some more.  What Head Start does do (as supported by this study) is ready young children for kindergarten and deliver them to a high-quality kindergarten teacher as eager little sponges ready to grow to their next level of learning (see Exhibits 3a and 3b showing statistically significant cognitive impacts of Head Start for the four-year-old cohort and three-year old cohorts, respectively (p. xxiv-xxvi)).  This is what we should want for all children—to have the skills and readiness to begin to learn.  A program that ensures our nation’s children are ready to learn when they reach school is a program worthwhile.

But the prompt asks whether Head Start is still relevant, which probes not just into the effects of the program (though, excitingly the random assignment of this study allows us to be able to determine actual causality of Head Start), but asks us to explore whether Head Start should continue to take up policy space, research, and public priority.  Should the federal government continue to support the program?

I point to two reasons why Head Start should continue to be supported by the federal government:  (1) the alternative to no federal government support is likely state-only support (rather than no support at all) and states are not currently in positions to take on this additional responsibility and (2) the federal government has societal interest in the secondary benefits Head Start has shown to produce in low-income children and families.

See why after the jump.

States are not allowed to run yearly deficits and must balance their budgets by controlling spending—even on programs and initiatives that are socially valuable.  State residents and communities familiar with Head Start are not likely to let the program receive no funding from their states, and will likely be joined by a coalition of parents who do not enroll their children in the program, yet find the program worthwhile. So, the political environment is likely to demand Head Start to be folded into state priorities rather than disappear, which means reexamining the budget pie without rose-colored lenses. But, officials in states’ offices of planning and budget are likely to see absorbing responsibility for Head Start as additional costs and added bureaucracy rather than an opportunity to make other programs more efficient to free up space for full Head Start operation.  This impasse is likely to anger state officials, further burden state budgets, and disserve low-income children who were once benefiting from the program’s operation under federal government support.

As to the federal government’s societal interest, Head Start seems to prepare low-income children and their families in similar ways that middle-class families prepare themselves for school--namely, accessing trained child development caretakers before first grade (p. xxi), hearing and vision screenings (p. xxi), likelihood of having insurance coverage by kindergarten and first grades (p. xxx), and lessened likelihood of spankings if entered Head Start at 3-years-old (p. xxxii).  Further, subgroups that appear as key populations for other federal programs are particularly benefited from Head Start.  These subgroups include children in the lowest academic quartile at baseline (positive social-emotional impacts), children of parents with mild depressive symptoms (favorable cognitive impacts), black children (positive social-emotional impacts), and dual language learners (health benefits), if children were enrolled at 4-years-old (p. xxxv-xxxvi). Having an extra Head Start year benefitted subgroups of children enrolled at 3-years-old for children with special needs (favorable math and social-emotional impact), children of parents with no depressive symptoms (positive cognitive, social-emotional, and parenting impacts), children from high-risk households (favorable cognitive impacts), and children in non-urban settings (sustained cognitive and some social-emotional benefits) (p. xxxvi).

However, this study does raise flags for Head Start’s benefits for all children, as “White children in the 4-year-old cohort experienced unfavorable impacts on several teacher-reported social-emotional measures in the 1st grade year and one unfavorable impact on parenting in the kindergarten year” (p. xxxvi).  There were also unfavorable reported effects for some teacher-reported measures as the end of the first-grade year that might spur some additional analysis (p. xxviii). As with all programs though, enrollment does not negate responsibility elsewhere to supplement the program with healthy home environments and vigilant nurtures willing and able to find opportunities to support each child’s special needs (because they all have them).

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