Head Start: Still Useless
Pat Moynihan understood the problem years ago.

Head Start classroom in New York City


Yet the facts about the matter are well established. Our $8 billion–per–year “investment” in Head Start ($180 billion in all since its creation) yields no discernable advantage for the children it is meant to help.

Questions concerning Head Start’s effectiveness have plagued it throughout its history. And, sadly, so long as there have been gold-plated, double-blind, peer-reviewed evaluations of Head Start, there have been politicians who would rather use the program to advance their careers than confront the real-world consequences of failing 1 million poor kids each year.

As far back as 1969, a Nixon White House aide by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan engaged in this sort of mischief. As editor Steven Weisman notes in a recently published collection of Moynihan’s letters, Moynihan sought to make sure that “the press gave Nixon credit for supporting programs for the poor.”

Alerted that a series of very critical evaluations of Head Start and other Great Society anti-poverty programs was imminent, Moynihan enlisted New York Times columnist James (Scotty) Reston in a little damage control. “[A] succession of research reports,” he wrote Reston, “will argue that the various specific undertakings [to alleviate poverty] have failed.” The “most consequential” study, he warned, will find “that Head Start does not work.” Specifically, Head Start “does nothing for the education achievement, attitudes, motivation, or whatever of poor children.” This most recent study, he acknowledged, “is the biggest and best to date” and, perhaps because of its authoritativeness, will cause Congress to react with “frustration, even disgust” and conclude that Head Start has been “oversold.” The program’s true believers, on the other hand, will man the bulwarks, deny the study’s findings, and accuse the programs’ detractors of “racism, cruelty to children, and methodological inadequacies.”

Rather than stoke the fires of a vicious ideological battle that would threaten Head Start’s future, Moynihan implored Reston to convince his colleagues at the Times “to be careful in reporting these issues in the next few months.” After all, he concluded, “complex problems are not always depicted as such in the press.”

Half a century has passed and the media remain as “careful” as ever in their coverage of Head Start. Remarkably, the release of the new study elicited no discernable press coverage. Nor has it prompted experts in early-childhood development or pro-Head Start lawmakers to reassess the government’s track record in alleviating poverty. Aside from a useful overview of the study’s findings by two Heritage experts, the only reaction comes from a Reuters op-ed written by Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, the prime Head Start lobbying entity. Remarkably, after examining the study, Vinci perfunctorily dismissed it. “So,” she concluded, “the answer is — yes, Head Start works.”

Head Start’s 1 million kids deserve better. Washington should take the HHS study seriously and look for more effective ways to offer poor children a realistic chance to surmount poverty and achieve their dreams.

 Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.