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Fixing Head Start

Empower parents.

Head Start should be abolished.

At least, that’s usually the first thing a conservative will say when the federal pre-K program comes up in a policy conversation. That’s also usually where the conversation ends.

This is unfortunate, because the principles and intuitions behind that antipathy are more compelling than many Americans might expect. And, if articulated properly, the conservative critique of Head Start can help push us toward a more promising approach to supporting early education.

Head Start was launched in 1965 as a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. President Johnson set out to redistribute federal funds to under-resourced school districts serving high concentrations of students in poverty. That basic function is fairly uncontroversial: most Americans agree that poor students shouldn’t be educated with less public money, that there is a role for the federal government to rectify resource gaps, and that the federal government is capable of cutting and mailing checks to the states.

However, most Americans also instinctively understand that while the federal government can financially support education, it’s poorly suited to administer and regulate classrooms. This is why Head Start, both practically and philosophically, falls short.  

Fifty years in, the federal government engaged in a comprehensive review and reform effort to cut the bureaucratic red tape that made Head Start centers operate with more of an eye toward compliance than quality. Its “Program Performance Standards” now contain only 1,000 regulations, divided into four parts, 21 sub-parts, and, within those, 115 sections. Early education providers will tell you that this was a big improvement from the 2,400 regulations they used to face. But it’s still hard to accept with a straight face that compliance with a thousand federal regulations is the ideal way to foster a vibrant and dynamic classroom for four-year-olds.

It should, then, be little surprise that Head Start is wholly ineffective at raising academic achievement. According to the gold-standard Head Start Impact Study, by the third grade there was no discernible difference between children who had been randomly assigned to receive Head Start services and their counterparts in the control group. Pre-K advocates insist that public spending on early education is an investment that will pay huge dividends down the road. As the Brookings Institution’s Russ Whitehurst and AEI’s Katharine Stevens have documented, those rosy projections are empirically shaky at best.

Perhaps more important than Head Start’s administrative shortcomings is the fundamental philosophical flaw it takes for granted: that taking a four-year-old child out of her home and housing her in a government-run center will yield transformative results. A child’s home matters more than most anything else to his life prospects; yet Head Start can serve more as a substitute for parental attention than a supplement for it.

Honest pre-K advocates will admit that they hope to see gains for children whose home environments are so disordered that exposure to an orderly, semi-stimulating setting could make a big difference. While it’s undoubtedly true that the environments children are exposed to leave a lasting imprint, there’s a depressing societal fatalism in pinning your policy hopes on a program that holds custody of four-year-olds for three hours a day, nine months a year.

What’s more, the Head Start intervention is both too little and too late to make a significant lasting impact, and hence a program that’s progressive philosophically ends up being regressive in reality.

The federal government spends $9.2 billion a year to serve around 950,000 students, a little under $10,000 a head. That’s sizable, in terms of both investment and spread, yet it covers only around half of four-year-olds under 200 percent of the poverty line. Students who don’t attend Head Start are left with a relative pittance of public assistance.

The easy answer, one might imagine, is to double the size of Head Start. But that would bring its own set of regressive unintended consequences. Private daycare providers rely on tuition from four-year-olds, who are relatively easy to look after, to cross-subsidize the care of infants and toddlers, who require far more attention. By absorbing four-year-olds into Head Start (or into universal pre-K programs), public policy threatens to destabilize if not decimate daycare providers. It’s far from clear that the benefits to additional pre-K enrollment would outweigh the costs of leaving infants and toddlers with fewer quality places to go.

But despite the compelling case against Head Start and its expansion, calling for its abolishment is an unconstructive absurdity, both politically and philosophically. It’s absurd politically because it will simply never happen; the constituencies are too powerful and the optics too awful. It’s absurd philosophically because early childhood circumstances present perhaps the strongest case against limited government of any public policy area.

As neuroscientists from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child underscore, “Early experiences determine whether a child’s developing brain architecture provides a strong or weak foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” The case for a limited welfare state and for policies that aim to provide equal opportunity ring rather hollow when a physical brain scan can literally show you the differences between children born into advantage and children born into disadvantage. There is, therefore, a powerful rationale for public assistance to improve the development of our country’s youngest citizens.

What should that look like? It would empower parents with the resources and information to take better care of their children as soon as they’re born, and enable them to access a broad range of services and support from civil society.

The ideal early education policy would look a lot like the newest frontier in school choice: Education Savings Accounts. Unlike education vouchers, which act functionally as certificates parents can take to traditional providers, Education Savings Accounts are essentially a restricted-use debit card that a parent can put toward a wide range of (government-approved) educational expenses. School-choice advocates imagine that, if brought to scale, ESAs could cultivate a vibrant, varied, and dynamic educational landscape. But in K–12 education, ESAs face a long uphill battle in the shadow of an entrenched, all-encompassing public monopoly.

However, despite the ongoing efforts of pre-K advocates, early education is still mostly a mixed marketplace, albeit one that’s hobbled by a lack of financial depth and quality transparency. Early ESAs could solve these problems by injecting the necessary funding and by providing a Yelp-style system of parent-driven reviews and ratings. Given these additional resources, the landscape of child care and early education could be fundamentally transformed.

Far more important than the effect of Early ESAs on child-care providers would be the effect on parents. Rather than requiring a mother to apply to the government for a form certifying that she’s poor enough to take her child to a government-approved center, imagine the empowering effect of instead telling a mother, “Here are these resources that you have to use as you see fit to care for your child. With this debit card, you can buy books, take parenting classes, or pay for any one of a variety of diverse daycare providers. Or, if you want, you can save up and send your daughter to a Head Start center when she’s four.”

This is not an entirely novel idea. Jeb Bush called for it in his presidential campaign. The Brookings Institution’s Whitehurst has called for a similar program, topped off with additional federal revenue.

Could it actually happen? The power of political path dependence and institutional inertia should never be underestimated, but if there’s any administration that could pull this off it would be President Trump’s.

On his right side, President Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has made it his mission to deconstruct the administrative state. On his left side, President Trump’s daughter Ivanka has made it her mission to support working families and vulnerable children.

Trump could achieve both worthy missions by transforming the federal government’s approach to early education policy from a Great Society vision of federally regulated centers to a 21st-century vision of empowering parents to take charge of their children’s education. And in doing so, he could make American early education greater than it’s ever been before.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.