Head Start: Can a Failed Program Ever Be Killed?

It is finally dawning on liberals that Head Start, America's 50-year experiment with early childhood education, is a failure.

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the federal agency housing Head Start, announced that for the first time, its lowest-performing centers will be forced to compete for funding.

This decision follows Joe Klein's recent confession in Time that since we no longer have money to spend on programs that do not create benefits, we should "ax" the $7.3-billion-a-year effort, which mainly supplies part-time care and education to impoverished three- to four-year-olds. 

Putting aside Klein's odd implication that there was once a time when we had enough money to spend on things that don't work and how negligible the new federal policy will likely prove, let's give credit where it is due: even mildly critiquing or tinkering with Head Start, a longtime sacred cow of the American left, takes guts.

The HHS-sponsored study that converted Klein was released in January 2010 to relatively little notice, but the report's findings are startling: the positive effects Head Start has on children (which are mild to begin with) simply vanish by the children's first year of school.  Head Start kids are no better off than those not in the program, but taxpayers are billions poorer.

To grasp the scope of this program's profligacy, compare the federal government's attempts at early-childhood education to its efforts to send men to the moon: Head Start has actually cost more ($170 billion to $145 billion) than the Apollo program.

So Klein's critique is correct: given our $1.1-trillion deficit, there is no rational excuse for continuing this program.  The HHS study, coupled with the dawning comprehension of our dire economic outlook, presents a long-overdue opportunity to pull the plug.

But given its good intentions, its very vocal defenders, and our current divided government, dismantling this symbol of the Great Society is easier said than done.

Inspired by the welfare overhaul of the 1990s, reformers should instead pursue another, more realistic path: instead of cutting them outright, they should offer an alternative use of Head Start funds. 

Klein notes that the study was a long time coming and suggested that HHS may have held it back.  As HHS appointees under President George W. Bush, we can at least partially confirm his hunch.  The program evaluation was actually commissioned in 1998 and took almost twelve years to come to fruition.  But there was no attempt to suppress the study -- at least until President Bush left office in 2009.

Some insight can be gleaned from an anonymous "senior Obama administration official," who admitted to Klein that Head Start is more "a jobs program" than an educational or antipoverty one.  This is an often-unrecognized characteristic of many social programs, which provide work for teachers and caregivers and administrators in areas where employment is often low, and, especially in the current economy, political leaders are reluctant to cut people loose.

Childcare for working parents is a genuine need, and as the recently released HighScope Perry Preschool Program report shows, preschool has a profound positive impact on a child's future.  But Head Start was never designed to provide daycare, and it is generally part-time, part-day, and part-year, and thus totally inadequate for anyone working full-time outside the home.  Even when coordinated with other care providers, the cost per child is double or triple that of regular daycare; as calculated by Professor Douglas Besharov, Head Start's hourly cost would translate into in excess of $20,000 a year.

One attractive and budget-neutral idea is an expansion of the current child and dependent care tax credit, targeted directly at lower income households with young dependents where there is no nonworking spouse or older child at home.  Usually, this will involve single working mothers, nor married couples where both parents hold low-paying jobs.  An increase of the child and dependent tax credit is, in fact, a long-held (and unfulfilled) policy goal of the Obama administration.

Redirecting Head Start's money could realize this promise, and if the expansion is aimed at those most in need (with a refundable credit), it cannot be said to hurt the poor, since it gives them what they actually need (and purchased) at a lower public cost per hour of services, allowing the money to go farther.

Alternatively, block grants flowing to the states via the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) could be expanded.  This program funds vouchers for poor working adults.  Tellingly, even though this program receives less funding than Head Start, it serves almost double the number of children.  An expansion of CCDF would allow more subsidies, while granting parents the freedom to choose their provider and freeing the individual states to target the money in ways best-suited to their respective citizens.

A third option is the provision of $7 billion in supplements to flexible spending accounts (FSAs) established by low-income workers to shield earnings used for childcare from taxes.

Again, this money would be directed at those with young children who lack a caregiver in the home.  Every month, as a small amount of their pre-tax income is deducted and put into such people's FSAs, the Treasury would "plus-up" the value of each FSA by a few hundred dollars.  The amount might vary by income, number of children and their ages, or other factors; this would be an alternative to a CCDF subsidy or child tax credit.  But the net result would be an FSA that can cover the costs of full-time care, while keeping the employees' portion at a manageable level.

How many jobs could Head Start money "save or create"?  Say parents received $300 a month, supplemented by $200 from them or their employer.  Although childcare costs vary widely, $500 a month is common for basic, full-time care.  Three hundred dollars over twelve months is $3,600 a year.  Dividing the current appropriation of 7 billion dollars, a flexible subsidy system that stabilizes childcare could be funded for 2 million families.  This could be spent on any provider said families choose, with a schedule that suits them and their job needs, reducing absenteeism, keeping parents in the workforce, and encouraging others to join.

Beyond work support, at a 10:1 child-to-caregiver ratio, $60,000 (60% federal) could be channeled to each provider.  That's enough to cover overhead and give many new caregivers a living wage and a steady job. 

Seven billion dollars sluicing into childcare could support roughly 200,000 new, productive, private-sector jobs in places where unemployment remains very high.

Millions of parents can move away from ad hoc care arrangements -- the distracted teenager or the lady down the hall who babysits with a television set -- toward higher-quality center-based providers.  This means thousands of new small businesses, many likely created by the best Head Start teachers and administrators.  Hardly a pure free market, but we live with a Keynesian executive branch, and this would likely generate a higher ratio of job and business creation than prior stimulus efforts, at no new cost to the taxpayer.

The HHS impact study and liberals' gradual grudging acknowledgment of its meaning -- that Head Start's benefits are mostly its limited childcare, and those benefits can be provided far more cheaply in other ways -- represent a moment of opportunity for reform-minded conservatives (and any sensible Democrats willing to join in) to finally correct a decades-long mistake. 

It's a well-intentioned mistake, to be sure.  But it's one with a high cost -- not just in tax dollars spent, but in opportunities squandered to do more with this money for some of America's hardest-working citizens.  A path to correct it may finally be at hand.