House Republicans are attempting to live up to their pledge to cut $100 billion from the federal government’s current fiscal year 2011 budget. One of the proposed programs placed on the chopping block is Head Start – a “Great Society” pre-school program intended to provide a boost to disadvantaged children before they enter elementary school.
The plan is to make a significant cut to a highly ineffective program that is plagued by fraud. Using Head Start’s budget of $7.235 billion in fiscal year 2010 as the baseline, the plan is to cut $1.083 billion – a 15.0 percent cut. If President Obama’s fiscal year 2011 Head Start budget request of $8.224 billion is used as the baseline, the plan is to cut $2.072 billion—a 25.2 percent cut. Based on Head Start’s ineffectiveness, these cuts are certainly justified.
The national 2010 Head Start Impact Study found that Head Start is clearly ineffective. The study placed almost 5,000 children eligible for Head Start into two treatment conditions based on a lottery. The children who won the lottery were awarded “free” (taxpayer-paid) access to pre-kindergarten Head Start services, while the others either did not attend preschool or sought out alternatives to Head Start.
The 2010 Head Start Impact Study tracked the progress of three- and four-year-olds entering Head Start through kindergarten and the first grade. Overall, the program had little to no positive effects. For the four-year old group, compared to similarly situated children not allowed access to Head Start, access to the program failed to raise the cognitive abilities of participants on 41 measures. Specifically, the language skills, literacy, math skills, and school performance of the participating children failed to improve.
Alarmingly, access to Head Start for the three-year-old group actually had a harmful effect on the teacher-assessed math ability of these children once they entered kindergarten. Teachers reported that non-participating children were more prepared in math skills than those children who participated in Head Start.
Also, Head Start has little to no effect on the other socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes of children participating in the program. For the four-year-old group, access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 70 out of 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes. The three-year-old group did slightly better; access to Head Start failed to have an effect for 66 of the 71 socio-emotional, health, and parenting outcomes.
In sum, Head Start failed to have an effect on 110 out of 112 outcome measures for the four-year-old group. For the three-year-old group, Head Start failed to have an impact on 106 out of 112 measures, with five beneficial impacts and one harmful impact.
If there is one program that deserves to be on the chopping block, it is Head Start.