Politics & Policy

A New Head Start

The federal program doesn’t work — it’s time to distribute its funds to the states and let them experiment.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “the preservation of freedom and happiness” depends upon “the diffusion of knowledge among the people.” President Jefferson rightly understood that education is the cornerstone of a free and prosperous society — a principle that is as true today as it was in the late 18th century. Indeed, in our high-tech, globalized economy, a solid education is the great equalizer of opportunity and an essential ingredient for upward economic mobility.

Yet at the same time, education costs are spiraling out of control, straining state and local budgets. And with all the mandates handed down from the federal government, it is becoming increasingly difficult for communities to provide high-quality educational opportunities for all children. Reform is needed now more than ever.

There is much work to be done at every stage of learning, from pre-kindergarten to post-graduate. One area where reform is most overdue: early-childhood education for the nation’s most underprivileged children.

Of the 69 federal early-childhood education and child-care programs, Head Start, which was designed in 1965 to specifically assist underprivileged children, is one of the oldest. And with an operating budget of more than $8 billion per year, it’s also the most expensive. Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, 50 years of empirical data has shown that Head Start has consistently failed to fulfill its promise of improving educational outcomes. According to a 2012 study by President Obama’s own Department of Health and Human Services — published the Friday before Christmas to avoid attention — whatever benefits children gain through the program disappear by the time they reach the third grade.

Producing meaningful improvements in the cognitive, social, and behavioral skills of these children is not a matter of appropriating more taxpayer dollars — that’s what we’ve been trying for decades.

The data is clear. We know that the current Head Start program doesn’t work. But it is possible that the money it currently wastes might still be put to good use, once freed from that failed bureaucracy.

Real reform doesn’t just cut big government; it fixes broken government to create opportunities for parents, educators, and local policymakers to design educational programs to meet the unique needs of their communities.

With this in mind, we recently introduced legislation in the House and Senate to eliminate the federal Head Start bureaucracy and repurpose its full $8.6 billion budget to the states to spend on pre-K education for low-income children. Without increasing the budget by a dime, our Head Start Improvement Act would provide states with the flexibility to administer the programs and provide technical assistance, oversight, research, and training. The states would establish their own programs and designate eligible pre-K entities, including both public and private preschool establishments, to receive grants.

Empowering state and local governments to tailor programs that will meet the unique needs of the families in their communities will not only improve individual educational outcomes, but also foster an innovative early-childhood-education system that encourages the 50 states to learn from each other’s successes.

Continuing to fund the status quo perpetuates a pattern of failure. We owe it to our nation’s future and our children’s potential to break this cycle.

— Mike Lee is the junior senator from Utah and Matt Salmon represents Arizona’s fifth congressional district.


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