The Failure of Head Start

Jul 30th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

One of my favorite columnists is Joe Klein of Time magazine.  Although decidedly liberal in the political sense, Klein is honest and straightforward.  I respect that about him.  For that reason, his most recent column on Head Start was intriguing.  The Head Start program was one of the signature elements of LBJ’s War on Poverty in the 1960s.  At that time, it was administered out of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.  [Today, it is still administered out of the Health and Human Services Department.]  In the 1960s, evidence indicates that the pilot programs of Head Start were effectively run and achieved their articulated goals.  But today Klein categorically declares Head Start a monumental failure.  It is now 45 years since this program was begun.  Today, we spend more than $7 billion each year on the Head Start program, serving over 1 million children.  Klein writes that “there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services:  Head Start does not work.”  The title of the HHS report is “Head Start Impact Study” and it declares that the positive effects of the program are minimal and vanish by the end of first grade.  “Head Start graduates performed about the same as students of similar income and social status who were not part of the program.”  Klein reports that “these results were so shocking that the HHS team sat on them for several years.”  Correctly, he observes that Head Start is a classic example of government-run social programs.  They often succeed as pilot programs but fail when taken to full scale.  There are several key questions about Head Start today:  (1) Why is Head Start administered through HHS and not the Department of Education?  The answer—it was LBJ’s War on Poverty directive!  His vision was to have community action programs (i.e., local agencies) administer programs to rebuild poor communities.  Head Start was to be a signature one of these community action programs.  Klein writes that “These outfits soon proved slovenly; often they were little more than patronage troughs for local Democratic Party honchos—and, remarkably, to this day, they remain the primary dispensers of Head Start funds.”  These local community action projects today that administer Head Start are really “make work” jobs.  In other words, Head Start is now a jobs program, not an early education program that works!!!  As Klein observes, since we are talking about the lives of children, “this is criminal.”  Head Start is in one sense a metaphor for federal government waste and inefficiency—a noble idea that does not work.  Instead, it has become a government patronage machine that swallows up $7 billion annually and does not really aid the children it is supposed to help.  So, it is actually a case study for the waste and lack of integrity of the national government.  It is also an example of the waste in government spending that has helped in no small way to create the financial crisis we are now in as a  nation.  Reading this report has been one of the saddest things I have done in quite some time.

See Klein’s essay in Time (18 July 2011), p. 27. PRINT PDF

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