NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Head Start is Politically Protected -- But Not Very Effective

September 21, 2000

Head Start, the half-day preschool program for poor children ages 3 to 5, seems to produce some gains initially. But the advantages begin to fade as soon as the children enter kindergarten and have altogether disappeared by the time the child reaches 12 or 13, education specialists report.

Nevertheless, both major presidential candidates support it, along with members of both parties. So the program is politically secure.

  • Head Start was founded in 1966 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- with an enrollment of 733,000 and a budget of $198 million.
  • Following a drop in enrollment to 330,000 in 1976, it shot back up to 826,000 in 1999.
  • Meanwhile, its annual budget has climbed to $5.2 billion -- to which presidential candidate Al Gore wants to add another $1 billion.
  • So while enrollment has increased only 12.7 percent since its founding, its budget has climbed 2,252 percent.

Critics say that Head Start programs are only as good as the teachers involved. Smaller programs can hire the best teachers and get results. But larger programs attract mediocre teachers, which may be the reason any gains made tend to fade swiftly.

Source: Benjamin Kepple, "Effectiveness of Head Start Is Lost in Race to Give It Still More Money," Investor's Business Daily, September 21, 2000.


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