Holding Head Start Accountable?

October 14, 2010

As I recently discussed, not only does the federal Head Start program have a fraud problem, it has patently failed in its mission to help children from low-income families succeed later in life.

In a Washington Post op-ed, Brookings scholar Ron Haskins and National Institute for Early Education director W. Steven Barnett acknowledge “that taxpayers get little for their annual investment of $8 billion in Head Start.” However, instead of calling for the program to be put out of its misery, Haskins and Barnett celebrate a new Obama administration initiative to hold Head Start grantees accountable. 

According to the plan, at least 25 percent of Head Start grantees will be required to compete for funding on the basis of “quality benchmarks, including classroom instruction and health and safety standards as well as financial accountability and integrity.” Haskins and Barnett say the move is “almost enough to restore a person’s faith in the federal government.”
Unfortunately, more “accountability” for government programs is often synonymous with more bureaucracy. As a Cato essay on Head Start points out, a lot of the program’s funding is already dedicated to such efforts: 
Between 2.5 percent and 3.0 percent of total funding is used for training and technical assistance from HHS. A complex formula then allocates remaining funds to provide a cost-of-living adjustment. If there are funds remaining after that, 40 percent are used for quality improvement purposes, 45 percent for expansion of programs, and 15 percent for funding State Advisory Councils. 
The problem with the authors’ exuberance is that it isn’t justified by the countless attempts throughout the decades by Washington to fix the public education system. Efforts by successive administrations to make sure we “leave no child left behind” has merely resulted in more spending, more bureaucracy, and no positive changes in educational outcomes.
Nobody questions that early childhood development is important. But even if the federal government had the constitutional authority to fund such endeavors, the incentives to provide quality outcomes simply do not exist with government programs. Instead of pretending that a little bureaucratic tinkering can fix Head Start, it’s time to acknowledge that the best thing the federal government can do for our children is to not leave them a mountain of debt.   


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