Politico reported this week that the Laura and John Arnold Foundation is donating $10 million to pick up the cost of 7,000 Head Start seats that are currently vacant due to the government shutdown. According to Politico, the funds are a personal donation from the Arnolds and will enable affected Head Start centers to reopen next Tuesday.
National Head Start Association executive director Yasmina Vinci was thankful for the donation, but stated:
The bottom line, however, is that angel investors like the Arnolds cannot possibly offer a sustainable solution to the funding crisis threatening thousands of our poorest children.
The Arnolds themselves reiterated that sentiment: “We sincerely hope that our government gets back to work in short order, as private dollars cannot in the long term replace government commitments.”
But is that true? The Arnolds’ generosity suggests that private foundations and personal philanthropy can, at least in part, help defray the costs of early education and care for children from low-income families. It also suggests that those who immediately assume that programs like Head Start are the only way to provide early childhood education to children from low-income families have conceded to government something that doesn’t belong to the federal government—and that expansive government programs might be taking the place of what the private sector and civil society institutions could provide.
At a minimum, the Arnolds’ contribution suggests that private foundations, low-cost church-based providers, and in-home care should be drawn upon first to provide preschool and day care. Where gaps in services exist, states can offer options that help low-income families with the cost of care.
While low-income families may need help financing preschool, excellence in early education requires abandoning the presumption that government preschool is preferable to family care or the private provision of care. Just as with K–12 education, public financing of preschool for children from low-income families does not mean those children should be confined to attending government preschools or programs.
The federal Head Start program has failed to effectively meet the needs of low-income children. While generous, the Arnolds’ contribution could have been put to better use by funding each of those children to attend a private preschool provider of choice.
The same policy reform applies to Head Start writ large: Instead of funding Head Start centers, if Washington is to continue to fund day care, policymakers should at a minimum restructure Head Start to fund the children in the program and allow them to take their Head Start dollars to any preschool provider of choice.