HEAD Start is one of those rare government success stories - a social welfare program that continually earns high praise from Republicans and Democrats alike. President Bush describes it as "a government program that works." Another conservative calls it "a program people love to love."
And why not, since it serves a lovable clientele - three- to five-year-olds from low-income families - and a noble purpose: preparing them for school. Studies have shown that the program improves children's confidence, social skills, and health. Some participants also score higher on standardized tests. Currently 621,000 children take part in Head Start, with nearly 1.7 million three- and four-year-olds eligible, according to the administration.
To make room for 159,000 more children, President Bush is calling for a $600 million increase in the Head Start budget. This would raise total annual funding to $2.8 billion. It represents the largest increase - 27 percent - since the program was established in 1965.
Even so, supporters of Head Start say it falls short of the amount needed to serve every child who is eligible. Democrats want to increase the budget by $1 billion a year. They remind Mr. Bush that he made a campaign promise four years ago to expand the program to serve all eligible preschoolers whose parents want them to attend.
Full funding remains an important goal. Yet even if every low-income four-year-old in the country participated in Head Start, politicians couldn't afford to become complacent. Studies have shown that the program's benefits diminish as children move on to mediocre or inferior public schools.
Head Start remains an important beginning. But enriching the lives and stimulating the minds of impoverished children cannot end when they turn five. The nation's ongoing academic assignment will be to continue the promise of preschool investment by improving the quality of the schools where Head Start graduates will spend the next 12 years.