Will We Blame Politics For Killing Head Start?

by Yasmina Vinci

Hearing the National Public Radio (NPR) segment “How Politics Killed Universal Child Care in the 1970s,” and following the avid dissemination of this tragic story by my colleagues in the civil society sector, made me wonder who might, decades from now, be blamed for killing Head Start? Kill Head Start, the life advantage that some of the most disadvantaged children and families get, and over 30 million have gotten already?

Who would do that?

In addition to elements and groups who have historically opposed the idea of providing opportunity to the families with most economic, racial, and developmental barriers to success, we are surprised to find that some of our colleagues in the Washington policy/advocacy civil society world are imagining that the nation’s most vulnerable children and families could be better served by individual states’ efforts at universal early learning. Have they forgotten the history of why institutions in local communities (churches, schools, community action agencies, reservations, and migrant programs) were given direct grants to provide the window of opportunity to children who would have been excluded from it on the basis of their race or ethnic identity in some states? Do they not know that Mayors and County Commissioners (of both parties) rely on their Head Start programs to provide the Head Start advantage through their comprehensive whole-child, whole-family two-generation approaches?

Big New Ideas

Getting ready for a new Administration has ramped up the quest for big new ideas among many of us in Washington. And while the Head Start community nationwide explores and compares local innovations to increase attendance, improve conditions for the Head Start workforce and looks to use the flexibility in the new Performance Standards to serve their families and communities even better, many of the Washington bunch see the old idea of giving states the Head Start money in a block grant, as a shiny new idea. Everyone in the Head Start community, and leaders of their communities, know that block granting Head Start to states would kill this proven national commitment to providing the opportunity for the American Dream to our most at-risk children.

Block granting Head Start to states would kill this proven national commitment.

Do we, for the sake of an idea — states building their own early learning systems with all different federal money streams at their disposal — dare deny to actual children in demographically and geographically unfavored areas the opportunity to be the next President of the Ford Foundation, or the CEO of the NAACP or Girl Scouts of the USA, or the US Secretary of Health and Human Services?

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announcing that she herself was a Head Start child.

An old friend who is an accomplished family therapist told me that she could not understand the desire to dismantle something that is in place, gets results, and continually improves. This brings us to the question of “evidence”, the bunker that holds both the long-lasting opponents of Head Start and the enthusiasts for the new idea of block granting Head Start to states. The much mischaracterized Impact Study and the 3rd grade “fadeout” myths and realities are used to deny the incontrovertible long-term positive results for success in school and life of the recipients of the Head Start advantage (see links below).

So, if in the next few years the Head Start advantage is lost to future generations, for once it may not be politics and politicians who are to blame but some of our very own colleagues at other Washington-based civil society institutions.

Yasmina Vinci is the Executive Director of the National Head Start Association.

Further reading on the Head Start Advantage

The Effects of Tulsa’s CAP Head Start Program on Middle-SchoolAcademic Outcomes and Progress (Georgetown University)

The Long-Term Impact of the Head Start Program (PDF) (The Hamilton Project)

Early Childhood Education (PDF) (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Revisiting the impact of Head Start (PDF) (Institute for Research on Labor and Employment)

Early Childhood Intervention and Life-Cycle Skill Development: Evidence from Head Start (PDF) (Harvard University)