AMERICAN public education added a new dimension in 1965. Called Head Start, it was a product of the civil rights movement, and it promised to loosen the shackles of discrimination and poverty for many disadvantaged children.
Aimed originally at pre-schoolers and those in the primary grades, it quickly became more than that.
According to Yale University psychology Prof. Edward Zigler, architect of the basic Head Start approach, the program's distinguishing characteristics are flexibility in meeting the needs of disadvantaged children and the involvement of virtually entire communities in seeking to prepare children for school and other experiences.
Although it had detractors from the beginning and has experienced some serious administrative problems - including misuse of funds in one California program - Head Start has filled a community need and involved hundreds of local residents in the process.
It has meant the difference between progress and failure to a great many of the 600,000 to 700,000 children in its community programs. Those who have participated in or closely observed the Head Start process tend to be impressed by its positive effects on both those helping and the recipients of help.
Children are not the only ones benefiting from Head Start: Many community residents drawn into the program find their own lives enriched, and a stronger sense of community is developed.
There have been failures, individual and collective. But not many critics are suggesting either Head Start's shutdown or reduction.
In last year's presidential campaign, both George Bush and Bill Clinton promised increased funding for the program. But both indicated they would order a rigorous assessment of Head Start's overall operation.
President Clinton has asked Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to conduct a thorough study of the program.
The president says he wants to budget $14 billion for Head Start over the next five years and provide year-round, full-day programs as well as comprehensive family services. The vote of confidence for Head Start is laudable; whether the budget schedule is plausible might be questioned.
A better-organized, more clearly focused Head Start will deserve public support.
The futures of many of the nation's children could hang in the balance.