Opportunity lost: Head Start

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Back in the summer of 1966 I was working for the Oakland County Democratic Party. Congress had just passed Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation, and the question occurred to me: What Great Society bills would work positively for Democratic candidates? Only one answer jumped out: Head Start. Everybody seemed to agree that this preschool program was a great idea. That has been the conventional wisdom ever since, for 39 years.

Yet, like a lot of conventional wisdom, it's probably wrong. The American Enterprise Institute's Douglas Besharov released a report on the serious research on Head Start. Besharov is, I think it's fair to say, widely respected as a fair-minded and knowledgeable social scientist, not just by colleagues at AEI but also at institutions like the Brookings Institution. His report is depressing. Head Start helps poor children, but not very much. That verdict is shared by low-income parents, who are less likely to enroll their children in the program.

In the last Congress, Republicans tried to reform Head Start by adding academic content. They were stoutly resisted by the lobby of Head Start providers, which charged that the Republicans were trying to "trash" the program. I was on their E-mail lists, and in my recollection they contained no references to serious research and consisted mostly of unsupported invective.

Now, as Besharov notes, Republicans have thrown in the towel. Rather than reform Head Start they are prepared to expand it. They are surely wary of being labeled anti-poor by the Head Start providers' lobby, and they realize that their charges are likely to be taken at face value and reprinted uncritically by mainstream media. Rather than suffer political damage in an effort to help poor children, they'll take a pass.

I suppose I can't blame them, politically, but this really is a shame. And what is also a shame is that the Democrats are content to put the interests of the Head Start employees over the interests of poor children. Strong interests tend to trump strong arguments, as David Stockman argued 20 years ago. Public employees and the Democratic and Republican parties both come out winners; poor children are the losers. Shame on all the winners.