ON any report card grading federal social programs, Head Start consistently earns top marks. Republicans and Democrats alike praise the success of the program, which since 1965 has given 11 million low-income preschoolers nutritious meals, free health screenings, and enrichment activities to increase their readiness for school.
But praise is easy - and free. What politicians find much harder to do is appropriate enough money to maintain the program's quality and increase the number of children it serves. Currently only about 30 percent of eligible 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled - 621,000 out of 2 million.
A recent emergency urban-aid bill eliminated a proposed $250 million increase for Head Start, making it impossible to keep centers for 220,000 children open this summer. Understandably dismayed, Prof. Edward Zigler of Yale, one of the originators of Head Start, called legislators' professed love for the program little more than "public whispers of sweet nothings."
Last week, with considerable fanfare, the House passed a $5 billion urban-aid package designed to help depressed cities and rural areas develop 50 enterprise zones. The package includes $500 million annually over five years for a combination of projects called "Weed and Seed." The idea is to "weed" drug dealers and gangs out of the zones so "seeds" like Head Start can grow.
However admirable these project may be, the modest increases granted to Head Start fall nearly $3 billion short of the financing goals set in the 1990 Head Start Reauthorization Act. That act aimed to have every eligible preschooler enrolled by 1995.
Even in an era of tight budgets, increasing enrollment remains a worthy goal. The government's own research shows that Head Start not only gives its graduates a stronger educational foundation but also appears to reduce juvenile crime.
Helping businesses take root in enterprise zones is important. But so is helping children, who could be considered the tiniest enterprise zones. If they do not get off to a promising start, who will be the next generation of business owners and employees to carry on the task of improving these distressed areas?
It is time for politicians to turn their "sweet nothings" into tangible evidence of their alleged affection for Head Start. By allocating more money, they will give many more poor children a chance to succeed. That in turn will keep Head Start on the honor roll of federal programs.