Making Hard Budget Choices: Time To Finish Head Start

There may be no federal program that was begun with better intentions than Head Start.  It was a key part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives and had an ambitious social engineering goal:  to help impoverished kids better prepare themselves for school and a useful life by providing them with preschool.

It is now 45 years later, and the Department of Health and Human Services has released its Head Start Impact Study.  The Study results are clear — Head Start does not work.  The Study found that the positive effects of the Head Start program are minimal and vanish entirely after children reach first grade.  Graduates of Head Start perform about the same as students of the same income and social status who did not participate in Head Start.  In short, we pay $7 billion a year for a program that doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.

In any rational world, the next step would be obvious.  We would end the program and save the $7 billion.  This is modern America, however, so of course that hasn’t happened.  Instead, the defenders of Head Start argue that even if it doesn’t work, it provides money and employment in depressed areas and should be maintained as a jobs program.  The Obama Administration says it is going to funnel the money to more effective programs rather than ending it outright.

Our budget problems are enormous and can only be addressed if every program, tax break, subsidy, and government job is potentially on the chopping block.  If a government program isn’t working, it should be ended, period.  We shouldn’t hesitate to cut defense weapons systems that aren’t performing as designed, or to end subsidies that no longer make rational economic or policy sense.

If we really were serious about tackling our budget problems, Congress would already have digested the Head Start Impact Study and decided to end the program.  Usually there is at least grounds for disagreement about the effectiveness of a federal program, but in this case a government-commissioned study is conclusive about the program’s failure.  What are we waiting for?

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