Commentary

Head Start Should Take a Lesson from Welfare Reform

Welfare reform and Head Start are two of the many programs scheduled to be reauthorized by the Senate this month. In 1996, the federal welfare program was completely restructured, and has since reduced the number of families receiving assistance by 54 percent — an undisputed success. Head Start needs an overhaul of its own, and if the Senate accepts the House version of the reauthorization bill, eight states could try the “block grant” funding that was a success in the case of welfare.

Just as the welfare program attempts to “level the playing field” for low-income families — providing cash and other assistance so parents can provide for their kids — Head Start is also an equalizer. It attempts to equip low-income children with educational and social tools they need to compete successfully in school and someday provide for themselves.

Studies confirm that poor children begin school at a disadvantage and that this disparity grows throughout elementary and secondary schooling. In its almost 40 years of existence, Head Start has failed to close that gap. Head Start advocates blame the failure on a lack of financial support, not enough enrolled children, and not enough qualified teachers.

Yet why is the $7,000 per-student we are paying for the 900,000 children in Head Start not enough to provide “level” educational opportunities?

The problem is not the amount of funding. The problem is that a federal agency is trying to run a local preschool program, which results in an inefficient allocation of funds. (The people closest to the problem are the best equipped to fix it, and handle the money to do so — not Washington.) The history of welfare reform suggests that Head Start program can be administered in a smarter way.

In the early 1990s, Congress recognized that welfare appropriations were being routinely approved but objectives were not being met. If a federal government-size band-aid was not solving the problem, why not try a more local, state-specific approach? Congress granted waivers for states to experiment with their welfare systems, implementing their own programs and guidelines. These innovative, “bottom up” pilot programs allowed Washington to see what would work and revamp the federal welfare system accordingly, rather than continuing to pour more resources into a failing, “top down” program.

Opponents of an overhaul argued in 1996 that state control would undermine the welfare system. States would cut their current funding, supplanting state social service budgets with federal dollars, and administrative changes would allow those in need to fall through the cracks, leaving a million children in poverty.

The same dire predictions are being made in the Head Start debate — states will undermine the system and a million children will be left without early educational help. It did not happen with welfare, and it would not happen with Head Start. Recognizing the failure of the federal effort, 40 states and the District of Columbia have already created their own early education programs or expanded Head Start with state money.

If states were given local control over Head Start, federal funds would complement, not compete, with local programs. Unified early education programs mean more efficient and cost-effective delivery of services, to more children, by more qualified teachers.

Like pre-reform welfare, Head Start is failing those it was designed to help. It is time for Congress to allow states to experiment with pilot programs, better serving children through local control. Because education is a significant factor in ending the cycle of dependency, overhauling Head Start is as important as reforming welfare.

The Senate should remember that block grants saved a failing welfare program. We should take a lesson from welfare reform and let states try this successful funding approach with the failing Head Start program.

Michael Tanner is director and Jenifer Zeigler research assistant in health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute