Last week, liberal think tank Center for American Progress released a plan to expand federal school-readiness programs like Head Start. The initiative, which the group plans to present to President Barack Obama, proposes to increase federal subsidies from $5,600 to $7,200 per child and provide pre-Kindergarten classes for all children between the ages of three and four.
Advocates describe it as a good investment. As evidence, they cite research linking the absence of early childhood education with higher chances of dropping out of school, becoming a teenage parent, or being arrested for a violent crime.
But critics say these programs significantly increase spending while crippling private providers. More importantly, the plan disregards the blatant failure of Head Start to adequately prepare children or improve parenting methods.
The proposal would double the number of families who receive child care subsidies from 22 percent to 44 percent while covering only 75 percent of the cost and leaving states to make up the rest. The proposal also increase the number of students in Early Head Start programs from 120,000 to 240,000, passing along the $200 billion tab to taxpayers during the first 10 years.
Under the Center for American Progress (CAP) plan, Washington would match states' spending on preschool programs for children aged three and four at an average rate of $10,000 per child, enough to cover full-day programs.
Over a 10-year period, the plan would cost a total of $200 billion—$98.4 billion for preschool, $84.2 billion for child care subsidies and $11.5 billion for Early Head Start. Once up and running, the program would cost nearly $25 billion a year—$12.3 billion for preschool, $10.5 billion for child care subsidies and $1.4 billion for Early Head Start.
That kind of spending would probably meet resistance in Congress even if the president embraced it as a blueprint.
But what’s more alarming is how the initiative ignores the results of a recent Department of Health and Human Services report. Released in December, the report concluded Head Start programs, despite $8 billion of annual funding, chronically fail both children, parents, and taxpayers.
Mandated by Congress in 1998, the study compared the academic and overall well-being of children enrolled in Head Start with the performance and well-being of students in a control group. It specifically measured the social and academic performance of the students and compared it against the performance of non-Head Start students.
The study analyzed cognitive skills involving reading and math, as well as socio-economic stability and parenting skills. It found Head Start students weren’t any farther along than students in the same demographic who didn’t attend the program.
“There is little to no academic benefit,” said Lindsey Burke, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “The kids are no better off than those who didn’t go.”
The CAP proposal would extend a clearly failing model into the middle class, and oversaturate a market already well-served. Burke noted low income families already have access to 69 federal programs, not including state-run programs and private options. “What we should be doing is consolidating these programs and getting rid of the ineffective ones,” she said.