Is Head Start Worth the Money?

President Obama has requested an additional $989 million in funding for
Head Start in the next fiscal year, which would ratchet up Head Start’s budget to about $8.2 billion. (Head Start also got an extra $2.1 billion as part of
last year’s economic stimulus.)

The latest indication: a study of 5,000 students earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which found virtually no difference in academic achievement by the end of first grade between those
who attended Head Start and those who were eligible to attend but didn’t. The HHS study followed the students from 2002 through 2006, showed that before entering kindergarten, the children in the Head Start group did score higher academically in some areas than the non-Head Start group. But that gap virtually disappeared in less than two years.

Yasmina Vinci, Executive Director of the National Head Start Association offers a counter argument.

“Right now, because of tight budgets, Head Start serves only 41% of at-risk
preschool students, and Head Start for infants and toddlers serves a minuscule 3.5%.

People who experience the outcomes have affirmed Head Start’s value. Just ask police chiefs who know that people who began in Head Start commit
fewer crimes and go to jail less often. Just ask school administrators. For example, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland recently found
that kindergarteners with special needs who had been in Head Start needed 3.7 hours of special education per week on average, versus 9.8 hours for non-Head Start children — a huge financial saving.”

The problems seem to be more with Head Start than with the concept of early education generally. Low-income children often begin school academically
behind their more affluent peers, and early education offers these children a chance to start at less of a disadvantage.

What can states do instead?  One option is state-funded preschool programs. Three states — Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida — have universal preschool for 4-year-olds, while 35 other states help fund preschool programs. A 2009 Georgetown University study of free-lunch eligible students in Tulsa-area Head Start and Oklahoma Pre-K programs found that students in the state program showed more progress, in both cognitive development and social-emotional skills, than their Head Start peers.