Head Start Loses Some Elbow Room
Head Start, one of the few Great Society initiatives left intact from the Johnson administration, is today facing competition from state-run programs.
A high school teacher who grew up in Minnesota, a guidance counselor raised on a reservation in Montana, and a social worker in south Florida were among the many former students who came forward to sing Head Start's praises when the preschool program celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1995.Skip to next paragraph
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All were quick to insist that time spent in Head Start classrooms had everything to do with shaping the lives and jobs they enjoy today.
But this fall, children living in the old neighborhoods of these alums could find themselves in a different kind of program - one sponsored by the state. With state-level prekindergarten offerings shooting up as rapidly as mushrooms after a rainstorm, the well-defined territory that once belonged to Head Start is now turning into a more crowded and complex playing field.
"At least 30 states and maybe 31 now have some form of prekindergarten program," says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Prior to 1980, he points out, there were only 10 states sponsoring any kind of prekindergarten initiative. One of the jobs both Head Start and the state programs now face is to discover "how to intersect and interface."
Several states have today adopted Head Start standards to use as guidelines for their own programs and some work in close partnership with the federal group. But others have yet to forge any kind of real relationship with the program, and for some it raises questions about Head Start's future. There are even those who wonder if it makes sense for the federal government to continue to work with three- and four-year-olds, when so many states are today moving to fill that gap themselves.
Head Start is one of the few programs left intact from the Johnson administration's Great Society initiatives of the 1960s. The federally funded project was designed to offer a leg up to children of low-income families.
One of the revolutionary features of Head Start was its focus on "the whole child." School readiness is achieved through work with kids' academic, physical, emotional, and social needs. Nutrition and hygiene are important pieces of the Head Start pie, as is parental involvement.
But some say it's time to rethink Head Start. The $4.4 billion now being spent by the federal government on Head Start "should be sent in block grants to the states for them to determine how best to prepare their students," says Nina Shokraii, an education-policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "States and people closer to the children should take over, not the federal government saying, 'This is what your children need' from miles away."
Strong state programs
Professor Zigler, an original founder of Head Start, is one of the authors of a recently released report entitled "Should Head Start be devolved to the states?"
He is quick to point to areas in which certain of the state programs may be surpassing Head Start. "Some states don't use the poverty line as the cutoff" for eligibility as Head Start does, Zigler says. "The early-education programs are better in some cases and teachers are paid more and better qualified" than in Head Start programs. State spending on prekindergarten varies widely (see chart, left) with some states well above Head Start outlays of $4,000 per child, and others considerably below.