Head Start: Can a Failed Program Ever Be Killed?

Charles N.W. Keckler and Ryan L. Cole, American Thinker, February 7, 2012

It is finally dawning on liberals that Head Start, America’s 50-year experiment with early childhood education, is a failure.

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the federal agency housing Head Start, announced that for the first time, its lowest-performing centers will be forced to compete for funding.

This decision follows Joe Klein’s recent confession in Time that since we no longer have money to spend on programs that do not create benefits, we should “ax” the $7.3-billion-a-year effort, which mainly supplies part-time care and education to impoverished three- to four-year-olds.


The HHS-sponsored study that converted Klein was released in January 2010 to relatively little notice, but the report’s findings are startling: the positive effects Head Start has on children (which are mild to begin with) simply vanish by the children’s first year of school.  Head Start kids are no better off than those not in the program, but taxpayers are billions poorer.

To grasp the scope of this program’s profligacy, compare the federal government’s attempts at early-childhood education to its efforts to send men to the moon: Head Start has actually cost more ($170 billion to $145 billion) than the Apollo program.


But given its good intentions, its very vocal defenders, and our current divided government, dismantling this symbol of the Great Society is easier said than done.


Klein notes that the study was a long time coming and suggested that HHS may have held it back.  As HHS appointees under President George W. Bush, we can at least partially confirm his hunch.  The program evaluation was actually commissioned in 1998 and took almost twelve years to come to fruition.  But there was no attempt to suppress the study—at least until President Bush left office in 2009.

Some insight can be gleaned from an anonymous “senior Obama administration official,” who admitted to Klein that Head Start is more “a jobs program” than an educational or antipoverty one.  This is an often-unrecognized characteristic of many social programs, which provide work for teachers and caregivers and administrators in areas where employment is often low, and, especially in the current economy, political leaders are reluctant to cut people loose.


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