In past speeches on education, President Barack Obama addressed the importance of quality early education programs in preparing students for successful academic careers. Head Start, the federally-funded preschool program for low-income families, is a big part of that effort with 2,900 individual programs nationwide. But recent movement toward widespread spending cuts has Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the non-profit National Head Start Association, concerned for the program's future.
Since 1965, more than 27 million students have graduated from Head Start, Vinci tells Governing in an interview. Yet, its target population remains dramatically underserved, she says. A recent analysis of U.S. Census data by University of New Hampshire researchers revealed that 5.9 million children under the age of six live in poverty. Head Start has less than a million available slots, meaning more than 80 percent of its potential pupils cannot enroll, Vinci estimates.
Last year, the program received over $7 billion from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As Congress's deficit reduction committee begins its task of trimming $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years, Vinci worries Head Start could be an easy target for cuts.
Her fears could be well founded: pre-K programs have been on the cutting board at the state level as the recession gorged revenue streams. Arizona eliminated its early education program entirely, Illinois has cut more than $60 million in support over the last two years and Ohio has reduced funding by more than 50 percent, the Associated Press reports.
Vinci is relying on a grassroots effort to alert the super committee's members about the program's value. Parents and community leaders are making phone calls to their congressional representatives, she says, encouraging them to visit local Head Start programs and look at evidence of the program's worth.
Vinci points to a variety of studies to back up her assertions that early childhood education is a bankable investment. For example, a 2007 study conducted by two Georgetown professors found that the benefits of Head Start outweighed its costs. A 2010 study in Montgomery County, Md., revealed the county's school district, and by extension its taxpayers, saved $10,100 annually for every special education student who previously attended Head Start, thanks to early identification of potential issues during their time with the program.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize Laureate and economics professor at the University of Chicago who has studied pre-k programs, has recently sent a letter (which Vinci shared with Governing) to the members of the deficit reduction committee, arguing for more funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, a program for infants and toddlers.
"America has a skills problem. The quality of our workforce is not what it should be and it is not improving. Budget deficits are created in large part by deficits in the skills of our workforce," Heckman writes. "Our country will be unable to compete in the global economy if it does not address the increasing numbers of children who are not prepared for success in school, career and life."
Not all evaluations of Head Start's success have been so kind. A widely cited impact study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported that by the end of first grade, Head Start students showed little statistical difference in outcomes from their peers. Vinci, who says she is familiar with the study, says its findings could be attributed to a number of factors: a less than desirable academic environment, teachers helping students catch up with those who didn't attend Head Start, among others. She asserts that the bulk of the research affirms the program's value in developing quality students and citizens.
Vinci says that she sees Head Start's success as directly tied to the overall health of the education system. Head Start's advocates have been involved in conversations about revamping the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and program administrators are developing inventive ways to coordinate with their local school districts, she says. One example Vinci gives: In Bremerton, Wash., Head Start teachers are participating in professional training courses alongside their elementary school colleagues.
Through those efforts, and the continued financial support from the federal government, Vinci hopes the program can continue to improve. She references the Census numbers again as evidence of the millions of children who stand to benefit from Head Start.
"We like to think of Head Start not as a program, because you can cut programs, but as a national commitment to provide that window of opportunity to the most disadvantaged," Vinci says. "That's very American. That's the American dream, to not have a ceiling through which you cannot go."