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Back to February Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 277 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS FEBRUARY 2009

Economic Recovery Package Marks $2.1 Billion for Head Start
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Before his inauguration, President Obama pledged he would prioritize "early childhood education" despite the pressing economic issues the new president and Congress now face. The 111th Congress demonstrated its concurrence with Obama's plans by dedicating $2.1 billion to Head Start and Early Head Start in the latest version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill. Head Start is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program that provides day care and other services to 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income backgrounds. Early Head Start is the similar program for infants and toddlers, established in 1995.

The National Head Start Association (NHSA) had called for Congress to deliver $4.3 billion to the two programs through the recovery bill, but NHSA nevertheless applauded the plan to provide the smaller amount. "We continue to believe strongly that the full $4.3 billion in additional funding is needed for Head Start and Early Head Start. As such, we see the $2.1 billion in the economic recovery bill as an important 'down payment' on the $4.3 billion needed and is consistent with President-elect Obama's early childhood priorities," wrote NHSA.

NHSA's statement claims that money for Head Start and Early Head Start will prove to be "one of the strongest possible 'kick start' investments that the federal government makes." To support this assertion, NHSA cites studies that have attempted to demonstrate the two programs' academic and other benefits for children who participate. The group gave, however, a very partial glimpse of the total body of research on Head Start.

For example, NHSA cites a study of 600 Head Start graduates in San Bernardino County, California (Meier, 2004). This study concluded that society receives nearly $9 in return for every $1 expended on Head Start. Studies calculating returns for tax dollars are notoriously unreliable and subject to the bias of the researcher, who decides what counts as a return on the investment. Other studies have claimed far more modest returns on tax dollars spent on preschool for low-income children. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton frequently cited a study that found a $3 return on the dollar. That study used a small sample of 58 extremely disadvantaged, low-IQ children who attended a model, program, the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Advocates return again and again to the Perry program, but even universal preschool advocate Craig Ramey, director of Georgetown University's Center on Health and Education, has rebuked other activists for using the Perry program to "overstate the economic return" and raise "unrealistic expectations" for other preschool programs. (Education Next, Fall 2008)

In a Wall Street Journal editorial last year (8-22-08), Shikha Dalmia and Lisa Snell of the Reason Foundation briefly explored the research on Head Start and universal preschool. "Studies by the Department of Health and Human Services have repeatedly found that although Head Start kids post initial gains on IQ and other cognitive measures, in later years they become indistinguishable from non-Head Start kids," they write. "Head Start Fade," as the phenomenon is sometimes called, even appears in some of the very studies NHSA states to support its case for billions of dollars in additional funding for the program, which currently runs at a cost nearing $7 billion a year.

"One inescapable conclusion from the existing research is that [preschool] is not for everyone," write Dalmia and Snell. "Kids with loving and attentive parents — the vast majority — might well be better off spending more time at home than away in their formative years. The last thing that public policy should do is spend vast new sums of taxpayer dollars to incentivize a premature separation between toddlers and parents." Expansion of Early Head Start, which is high on Obama's "Zero-to-Five" early education agenda, would do exactly that.


 
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