Head Start: Funding and Effectiveness Weighed


By Leif Parsell

Facing structural shortfalls in the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Governor Paul LePage is seeking to cut $4 million from state funding to Head Start, a program that provides early childhood education and parental advice.  While primarily a Federal program, Maine is one of only sixteen states that provides supplementary funds to Head Start. Facing a two-year, $220 million shortfall in the DHHS budget, LePage has decided that the department must prioritize. With nearly 90% of Head Start funding ensured, and several studies challenging the effectiveness of the program, the necessity of additional state funds has been put into question.

Governor LePage’s Press Secretary, Adrienne Bennett, stressed that Maine’s government must prioritize in order to protect the safety net for the most needy.  Head Start, even if the state cuts are passed, would still have its federal funding.  In addition, Head Start costs $9100 per student in Maine, only slightly less than the average Maine k-12 spending in 2009-2010 of $9663, despite the fact that many Head Start children attend only half-time.

As of 2005, Head Start, created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” had enrolled more than twenty-two million students at a cost of more than $100 billion dollars.  In Maine, Head Start enrolled 3,819 children in 2009-2010, and over the last three school years, Head Start spending in Maine averaged $34.8 million dollars, of which the state paid 11.1%.

Many studies since Head Start’s inception have attempted to quantify its long-term results, and two recent studies have questioned its effectiveness. The first, released in the March/April 2007 issue of the academic journal Child Development, studied all forms of early childhood care, tracking outcomes up to the fifth and sixth grades.  It found two sustained results which could be correlated to higher quality early child care, one of which was positive (higher fifth grade vocabulary) and one negative (more problem behaviors through sixth grade).  By academic standards both correlations were small, and there were no lasting effects at all on reading, math, or work habits.

According to Adam Schaeffer, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Center for Educational Freedom, the study did highlight just how much more important good parenting practices were.  From the study:

“In marked contrast to the childcare effects just described, parenting quality significantly predicted all the developmental outcomes and much more strongly than did any of the childcare predictors.  Higher levels of parenting quality…predicted greater tested reading, math, and vocabulary achievement in fifth grade, lower levels of teacher reported problems, and higher levels of social skills, social-emotional functioning, and work habits in sixth grade.”

The second study was prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources and released in January 2010. According to Russ Whitehurst of the left-leaning Brookings Institution, the study had been completed in 2008, but was delayed because they were “trying to rerun the data to see if they could come up with anything positive.  They couldn’t.”  The report found that whatever minimal benefits Head Start provides to 3- and 4-year old children disappear by the completion of 1st grade.  In other reports this has been called the Head Start “fade out” problem, where improvements in child socialization, IQ, or test scores in kindergarten or first grade gradually disappear when compared with their peers who did not attend.

Judy Reidt-Parker, Early Childhood Policy Analyst at the Maine Children’s Alliance contested these findings.  “I would not interpret the (impact) study as showing Head Start to be ineffective.”   Estelle Rubinstein, Executive Director of Androscoggin Head Start and Child Care, suggested that the data she had seen reported the fade-out complete by the third, not the first grade.  She felt that the blame for this should not be attributed to Head Start, but to public schools.

In July of 2011, liberal columnist Joe Klein, writing in Time, suggested that Head Start, like other War on Poverty programs, was historically a source of patronage jobs for Democratic Party members and their supporters.  Klein quotes an unnamed senior Obama Administration official as saying that even today, “the argument that Head Start opponents make is that it is a jobs program, and sadly, there is something to that.”