- - Friday, September 5, 2014

Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income kids, is a politician’s favorite. They regard the sum of the money poured into Head Start as the measurement of the depth of their concern “for the children.” No wonder it’s costing $8 billion a year. There’s no limit to the concern the right-minded have “for the children.”

For all that money, we’re not getting much. This is the conclusion in a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The bureau is unable to find lasting benefits for the 900,000 children enrolled in the program.

When children who attend Head Start begin kindergarten, they perform better than children of the same socioeconomic background who didn’t attend the federal pre-kindergarten program. That sounds like success, except that the benefit of advanced skills acquired in naps and playing with blocks doesn’t extend beyond kindergarten.

“Once the children enter elementary school,” the researchers wrote, “the cognitive gains fade out for the full population.” This fade-out effect has been noted since the program began in 1965, but that hasn’t concerned the politicians who spend like a reckless Kansas City butter-and-egg man. They care too much about the children to think about whether the program is effective.

The most lasting benefit the researchers could find was that “cognitive gains persist through first grade for some Spanish speakers.” Not exactly an $8 billion accomplishment.

Using older, less sophisticated data, the Department of Health and Human Services produced a study last year that “by the end of third grade, there was very little impact [as a result of the Head Start program].”

Even the liberals at the Brookings Institution conceded after looking at the evidence that “there is no measurable advantage to children in elementary school of having participated in Head Start.” A study in 2005 by researchers at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley found that a pre-kindergarten program, such as Head Start, actually “hinders social development and created poor social behavior, such as bullying and aggression, and a lack of motivation to take part in classroom activities.” It’s better for preschool-aged children to simply play and deal with others on their own terms than to sit trapped in a structured, formal school setting.

Instead of ramping down this money-wasting scheme, President Obama requested a $270 million increase in Head Start funding this year, adding to the exorbitant $8,000 per-pupil cost of the program.

At best, Head Start is extraordinarily expensive day care. At worst, it makes life even more difficult for America’s low-income kids. The way for politicians to show they really care is to stop Head Start.

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