By John David Dyche
Imagine this television commercial. A man in a suit sits at a small table surrounded by adorable children.
“Which is better,” he asks. “Borrowing billions from China to spend on an ineffective government program, or spending a little less on that program so you don’t have so much debt to repay when you grow up?”
The cute kids, being smarter than many liberal adults, quickly and correctly choose the latter.
Head Start is an $8 billion federal program. The bipartisan budget deal’s automatic spending cuts are reducing it by a mere 5 percent, or $400 million. Even post-sequester our debt-laden nation will still lavish $7.6 billion on Head Start.
The relatively modest reduction means there will be 51,000 fewer preschool slots and 6,000 fewer childcare slots. But about 943,000 children will still do Head Start.
This small step of returning Head Start to spending levels of a few years ago has sparked hysteria among some liberals. Their overreactions elevate emotion over evidence and typify the Left’s trademark refusal to face educational or fiscal facts.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported the findings of a comprehensive Head Start Impact Study. Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, not exactly a coven of mean-spirited conservatives, calls the study “one of the most ambitious, methodologically rigorous, and expensive federal program evaluations carried out in the last quarter century.”
The study concluded that Head Start had few, if any, positive impacts, and some negative ones. Education Week summarized, “Most of the advantages in learning that children gained because of Head Start disappeared by the time they finished 1st grade.”
In other words, children who attend Head Start are no better off than those who don’t. Taxpayers are $180 billion worse off since Head Start began, however.
This compelled even a card-carrying lefty like TIME’s Joe Klein to admit that this Great Society experiment was a failure. “Finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services,” he wrote. “Head Start simply does not work.”
In 2012, HHS released a Head Start Impact Study follow-up report that further confirmed Head Start’s failure. Whitehurst describes its results: “There is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start. Further, children attending Head Start remain far behind academically once they are in elementary school. Head Start does not improve the school readiness of children from low-income families.”
He concluded, “If we want to do good we need to be hard-headed, not just do-gooders. It is time to be hard-headed about Head Start.” Spending massive sums of borrowed money on something that simply does not work is worse than mere misguided compassion. It is actually doing harm to those we seek to help.
Head Start defenders rage at the study results and resort to every kind of contortion to escape their stark conclusions. For some, spending money on social programs is always morally right, even if doing so saddles the recipients’ generation with more debt. To ever spend less, even if the program is demonstrably ineffective, is always morally wrong.
Some smaller studies suggest that other models of early childhood education might produce positive outcomes. But for many on the Left the monetary inputs are all that matter.
In their well-meaning minds, the gesture, measured in money, matters more than the real life results. They are oblivious to the fact that the fortune they insist on wasting must first be extracted from someone else who worked very hard to earn it and may need it for their own actually useful purposes.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media hype machine cranks out indignant editorials and Pearl Harbor-sized headlines about allegedly brutal Head Start cuts. Bleeding hearts who have not done their homework reflexively respond to such simplistic baiting with anger misdirected at politicians who at least this once have done a small something right.
If Americans are going to transfer $8 billion from some people to others for purposes of preschool it would be better to just give the parents of 2 million kids $4,000 apiece to use on private pre-schooling of their choice. But that might be too much like freedom and personal responsibility for the “government knows best” progressives bent on banishing both those virtues from this country that was built to greatness upon them.