Sen. Mike Lee introduces Head Start reform

The Head Start early education program is a curious article of faith in government: an $8.6 billion program with few measurable, lasting benefits, but which is nevertheless spoken of as a vital pillar of America’s future, because it’s For The Children.  The primary criticism of Head Start entertained by Beltway culture is that it’s not funded lavishly enough.  The collective mind of official Washington has difficulty grasping the idea that spending billions of dollars to jump-start the educational process with very young children could possibly have negligible long-term benefits.  That just can’t be right!

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) thinks the effectiveness of Head Start is compromised by top-down, centralized regulation, a problem he aims to correct with a reform bill introduced on Wednesday.  Lee’s “Head Start Improvement Act” would block grant Head Start funds to state-level organizations, based on their relative population of children age 5 and younger who live within 130 percent of the state poverty line.  The funds would have to be used for pre-kindergarten education, support services, training, research, and administration.

“Underprivileged children need access to good education, and the scientific evidence shows the federal government does a lousy job providing it,” said Lee.  “Education reform should empower principals, teachers and parents, instead of centralizing power and money in political bureaucracies.  This bill would allow states, communities, schools, and families to better tailor pre-K programs to the specific needs of each eligible child.”

The centralized nature of the enormous Head Start program makes it difficult to identify what works best for different communities, a problem exacerbated by the very tender age of the children involved.  For example, U.C. Irvine recently released a study that suggests Head Start is primarily of benefit to children who don’t receive early stimulation on reading and math skills from their parents at home, although the study went on to observe that engaged parents providing such academic stimulation at home produced results superior to Head Start by itself.

It stands to reason that some stimulation would be better than none, but understanding the crucial role played by parents in securing long-term benefits for the children could lead to big changes in the design of early-education programs.  And since parents face very different circumstances from one community to the next, a decentralized program with more parental involvement, as envisioned by Senator Lee, should be much more flexible and effective than the current, calcified, Washington-based system.

Citing some innovative ideas for organizing private charity efforts to replace inefficient government programs in his state, Lee declared that “every state should have the freedom to solve problems their own way, according to their own values and priorities.”   Defenders of Head Start have a great deal of trouble explaining why even the Obama Administration’s own studies show the benefits fading away completely by third grade.  It seems clear the existing bureaucracy can’t make it work as anything better than an impromptu day care service.  Why not give states and communities a chance to see what they can do with it?