January 18 2013

Public Programs That Don't Yield Results but Give Politicians a Head Start

Krista Kafer

Everyone knows that politicians love photo-ops with children. They love to say how much they support this or that program that helps put the next generation on a path to a brighter future. Take the federal Head Start program, for example, which is supposed to provide for low income children’s social, educational, emotional, health, and nutritional needs. For nearly fifty years, politicians have gotten a lot of mileage out of saying “I support Head Start!” It would appear that they are the only ones to benefit from the program, however.

A new government funded research study shows that Head Start has no positive impacts on participants. Initial academic and cognitive gains fade out after a couple of years. Children who participated in the program ended up no different than children who stayed at home or participated in a different type of daycare.  Shocked? There have only been a couple hundred studies showing the same finding.  

As far back as 1969, the Westinghouse Learning Corporation found cognitive gains of the program's participants faded away within a few grades, at which point the cognitive abilities of Head Start participants are indistinguishable from their nonparticipating peers.

In 1985, the Head Start Synthesis Project, a meta-analysis of over 210 studies and reports, found: “Children enrolled in Head Start enjoy significant, immediate gains in cognitive test scores, socioemotional test scores, and health status. In the long run, cognitive and socio-emotional test scores of former Head Start students do not remain superior to those of disadvantaged children who did not attend Head Start.”

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released findings from the third-grade follow-up study of the Head Start program. Like the first grade follow-up results in 2010, this study shows that there are no long term impacts.

Moreover, the program has had its share of fraud and abuse according to the Government Accountability Office with workers falsifying records to get more participants and thus more funding. Shocking!

All told, in nearly fifty years, taxpayers have spent $180 billion on this program and gotten nothing in return. Low income moms who enrolled their kids hoping they’d get a head start, have nothing to show for their efforts.  Politicians, however, have gotten countless press releases, sound bites, and photo-ops for supporting an ineffective, wasteful program. Worse, they’re passing on a $16 trillion debt to the very kids they purport to care about. Politicians get a head start on the next election, while taxpayers, moms, and kids are left empty handed. 

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