Legislation to provide $60 billion to areas affected by Hurricane Sandy includes $100 million for the federal Head Start day care program. According to the Senate Appropriations Committee, funding for the FY 2013 Disaster Assistance Supplemental bill will be used to repair 265 Head Start centers. Specifically, funds appropriated to Head Start:
Shall be available through September 30, 2014 for activities to assist affected Head Start agencies, including technical assistance, costs of Head Start services (including supportive services for children and families, and provision of mental health services for children affected by Hurricane Sandy), and costs of renovating, repairing, or rebuilding those Head Start facilities damaged as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
One hundred million dollars is no trivial amount of money. In fact, that is $377,358 per Head Start center. While some of these centers may certainly have repair needs as a result of Sandy, this new, massive infusion of cash into the failing Head Start program is part of a much larger debate.
Since 1965, when Head Start was founded as a small summer program, taxpayers have spent more than $160 billion on the initiative. Yet sadly, the return on investment for both taxpayers and children has been much closer to zero.
The Head Start Impact Study—a rigorous experimental evaluation conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—found that any benefits of participating in the program completely disappeared by first grade. Moreover, HHS found that access to Head Start failed to have any impact on 4-year-old children for the 41 assessed cognitive measures. On the 41 assessed cognitive measures for the 3-year-old cohort, Head Start actually did have an effect on one of the measures—teacher-assessed math ability—but it was negative. That is, Head Start actually had a harmful effect on children’s mathematics skills, as reported by their teachers.
It appears the federal government does not want to hear any more bad news about this $8 billion per year day care program. HHS also conducted a third grade follow-up study, but has been sitting on the results for more than four years. Taxpayers deserve to know whether their hard-earned money is being wasted. Parents of Head Start students deserve to know how the initiative is affecting their children.
Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) and Representative John Kline (R–MN) have been trying to get answers from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. In October they sent a letter to the Secretary requesting an explanation for the delayed Head Start report, noting that the data collection was finished in 2008. Four years after the data collection was complete, and two years after the analysis was finished, the outcomes have still not been made available to taxpayers and parents.
If that weren’t bad enough, in 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that several Head Start centers were complicit in fraud, urging families who did not meet the income eligibility to enroll in the program by misrepresenting their eligibility.
Despite all this—lack of impact on educational outcomes for children, opaque management of the program by HHS, and fraud—President Obama wants taxpayers to pour an additional $100 million into the Great Society relic.
Instead of wasting more money on this failing federal program, let’s give these children a real head start. Head Start resources can best serve the future of America’s children by being directed elsewhere. But if the federal government continues to fund this day care program, at the very least it should be reformed so that states can be allowed to make their Head Start dollars portable, following children to any provider of choice, instead of relegating them to underperforming Head Start centers.