What happened to Head Start? That is a question asked in Washington these days following House approval of Mr. Reagan's substitute budget package. Now that lawmakers have had time to read through the document they approved so handily they have made some interesting discoveries. Such as that environmental programs fared surprisingly well. But also -- surprise -- that no funds were voted for the Head Start program, which provides special instruction for over 390,000 preschool and inner-city children.
House Republicans insist they like the program so much that they excluded it from the budget bill in order to fund it separately. "President Reagan wants it fully funded, and we decided to authorize it outside the budget reconciliation process" was how one aide to House Republicans described the reason for the missing $950 million program in a budgetcut package of over $39 billion In short , special treatment for a special program!
Head Start, one of the best known of the Great Society programs, has long had more than its share of controversy. Critics have contended that the program is a waste of taxpayer dollars since children in the program tend not to test out any better than non-Head Start children by the time they reach their high school years. Proponents, meanwhile, point to findings showing that Head start children have more self-esteem and score higher on tests at age six than their nonprogram peers, even though such advantages tend to disappear by around age 13 .
Mr. Reagan, for his part, has designated Head Start as one of the seven social "safety net" programs that he has promised not to cut. Thus, Head Start in a sense has become a sort of mini-test as to how well the President strikes a balance between no-nonsense budget pruning and retaining the ameliorative hand of government in at least those minimal situations where the private sector has not yet preempted the federal or local role, or is unable to do so. Mr. Reagan has so far gone about fulfilling his campaign and early presidential promises with great dispatch. It is to be assumed that Head Start legislation will soon be given as much White House backing as efforts to cut the budget, despite the fact that the "little people" constituency of Head Start may not seem to have all that much political clout in the corridors of power.