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Head Start Works

The program prepares kids for school and keeps them out of trouble years down the line.

People on both sides of the aisle are anxious over what the education secretary should or will do. The far right is calling for the complete dismantling of the federal Department of Education and a return to the states controlling education. However, in its few short years of existence, like any other federal behemoth, the Department of Education has woven its tentacles deeply into the national landscape. Rapidly pulling the plug on this controversial department will kill the patient.

So, at the risk of a metaphorical lynching by fellow conservatives, is there a role for the federal government beyond commerce and security? I say yes, if there are common nationwide goals that “insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.” Most people don’t take the time to digest the mission of the federal government in its entirety. The role of the federal government, as defined by the preamble of the Constitution, is to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Before we define specifically what the federal government can do in this area and how it relates to the intended role of the federal government, we need to unpack a few critical facts.

FACT #1: The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in its 2015 study on student performance (PISA) ranked the United States 38th  in mathematics, 24th in reading, and 25th in science—behind such powerhouses as Estonia, Macao, and Vietnam.

LOGICAL CONCLUSION: We need to improve our educational outcomes to remain competitive in a global economy.

FACT #2: A study published by the Heritage Foundation in 1995 titled The Real Root Causes of Violent Crime: The Breakdown of Marriage, Family, and Community” rings as true today as when it was published. Some of the unpopular but substantiated observations of the study are:

  • High-crime neighborhoods are characterized by high concentrations of families abandoned by fathers.
  • State-by-state analysis by Heritage scholars indicates that a 10 percent increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent homes leads typically to a 17 percent increase in juvenile crime.
  • The rate of violent teenage crime corresponds with the number of families abandoned by fathers.
  • The type of aggression and hostility demonstrated by a future criminal often is foreshadowed in unusual aggressiveness as early as age five or six.
  • The future criminal tends to be an individual rejected by other children as early as the first grade who goes on to form his own group of friends, often the future delinquent gang.

LOGICAL CONCLUSION: In order to improve the general welfare of the nation we need to stem the tide of violent crimes. Rapidly and effectively changing the current makeup of society and marriage is not a realistic goal.

FACT #3: A New York City Independent Budget Office study published in fiscal year 2013 reported that the city pays an average annual cost of $167,731 per inmate.    

LOGICAL CONCLUSION: Regardless of the fact that costs in New York are high, no one can deny that mass incarceration is expensive.

FACT #4: A 2005 research brief published by the RAND Corporation titled “Children at Risk” concluded:

  • A substantial percentage of children are disadvantaged in terms of resources available for healthy physical and mental development. One-fifth of children under age 6 live in poverty, and nearly half of all children face one or more risk factors associated with gaps in school readiness.
  • These disadvantages translate into shortfalls in academic achievement, prosocial behavior, educational attainment, and, eventually, greater rates of unemployment and criminality.

LOGICAL CONCLUSION: Without intervention, at least 50 percent of all children living in the United States under the age of six are at risk of doing poorly in school, which means having few opportunities later in life.

So while some of you may be prematurely concluding that I am going to try and convince you that the Common Core is not so bad, I’ll save that for another article. As rational human beings, there comes a time where you must use common sense. That common sense tells us that we are losing the international education war because, among other things, our abandonment of traditionally stable two-parent households has led to a growing population of children at risk of being more likely to be educationally uncompetitive, unemployed, and potentially criminal.

So how do we stem this swelling tide of mediocrity and malevolence? What could be even more relevant that vouchers for children that have already been exposed to unneeded risk? We already have a proven remedy—it’s called the Head Start program, and it prepares low-income children for school by providing them educational, nutritional, and health services.

I know many of you will cite counter studies that minimize the value of these programs, or dispute the format, but this is where you must use your God-given common sense. I’ve sat in on Head Start classes. I even have a daughter who taught in the system, and I tell you it has a major impact on the lives of these children. And if given the chance to operate without the economic stigma of a program for the poor, Head Start could change the face of our culture.

Although specific studies of the federal Head Start program are limited, the “Longer Term Effects of Head Start” study by Eliana Garces, Duncan Thomas, and Janet Currie concluded that:

among whites, participation in Head Start is associated with a significantly increased probability of completing high school and attending college, and we find some evidence of elevated earnings in one’s early twenties. African Americans who participated in Head Start are significantly less likely to have been charged or convicted of a crime. The evidence also suggests that there are positive spillovers from older children who attended Head Start to their younger siblings.

So, what are some goals that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos might work with Congress to achieve?

  1. Make Head Start-like programs a national requirement. Preschool education has shown to be beneficial for all demographics and regions. Head Start should be funded and run as a national program that is implemented regardless of income.
  2. Strengthen the Head Start program by requiring each classroom to be led by a certified and credentialed teacher. This would allow the program to have more consistent outcomes and to conform to new, elevated standards.

By now many of you are thinking of excuses and how this approach will offend one of your precious beliefs. But I challenge you to look at the facts. A national, efficient preschool education program combined with home visits will change the future of this once-great nation. It is a fact that a child who is school-ready and has basic social and cultural skills has a significantly better chance of staying in school and being a productive member of society.

How do you fund it? You don’t have to reach far into the future to imagine the savings from potential incarceration costs alone, let alone productivity increases from education and the mitigation of welfare programs. Remember, it’s not the government’s money, it’s ours, and it doesn’t matter if it comes out of the federal pocket or the local one. It’s still our money.

John Burtka III, who was formerly involved in the global automotive industry, now acts as a Lean-Six Sigma business consultant, entrepreneur, Community Mental Health board member, and county commissioner.