Head Start Doesn’t Deserve an $840 Million Boost

The $1.1 trillion proposed spending bill provides almost unlimited examples of the federal government’s excess. Naturally, most of the outrage will focus on the funding to implement Obamacare, the thousands of earmarks, and the overall size of the monstrous bill. Here’s another item that should be singled out for rebuke: the $840 million increase for Head Start.

This is, after all, the administration that promised to fund education based on “what works.” And while Head Start has good p.r., the simple fact is there’s scant evidence that this program is effectively fulfilling its mission. 

The Head Start program was launched in 1965 and today provides subsidized preschool for about 900,000 children from low-income families at a cost of more than $7 billion. The logic behind Head Start is that it is more than just a transfer program (subsidizing childcare for lower-income Americans). Head Start champions argue that the investment in higher quality preschool will lead to better educational outcomes — and therefore better life prospects — for participants. The government books are ultimately supposed to benefit due to participants’ reduced use of welfare programs and greater economic productivity.  

Unfortunately, there’s very little evidence to suggest that this is how it actually works. The Health and Human Services department released a congressionally mandated study that examined how former Head Start students fare. The study revealed that what gains Head Start participants enjoyed during the program all but vanished by first grade. In other words, the billions invested in Head Start failed to change the prospects of participants in any meaningful, measurable way. 

HHS delayed releasing the study for nearly a year. It seems likely that HHS officials were themselves uncomfortable with the findings, and loath to admit that a popular program was essentially a waste. Yet American taxpayers — who pay for this program, after all — should ask themselves if this is really the best use of billions of dollars each year. Certainly it seems unwise in an era of runaway budget deficits to significantly boost the budget of a program with such dubious benefits.

Carrie Lukas is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.

Carrie Lukas — Carrie Lukas is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum.

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