Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Head Start Program – Is it Worth the Cost?

Head Start Awareness Month

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By Terry Orr
Like most of us, we have heard many things about the Head Start Program (HSP) – the good, the bad and of course the ugly.  The concept and overall purpose of HSP is excellent – the implementation however, seems to be the problem. What follows is a summary of HSP today and recommendations on what may need to be done.

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What is Head Start Program?
The Head Start Program is a program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. (Wikipedia - also for more details)

Head Start promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provisions of education, health, nutrition, social and other services. [Source]

Other Services
Head Start and Early Head Start programs offer comprehensive, interdisciplinary services in the areas of physical and dental health, mental health, nutrition, education, and parent involvement.


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According to the Nevada Early Childhood Advisory Council:
President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October as Head Start Awareness Month in October of 1982. After 29 years, Head Start is proud to have served millions of low-income preschool children and their families.

Head Start strives to improve the prevention, detection and treatment of children’s medical, nutritional and educational problems. 

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Budget and Funding
This is a tough one to decipher – from the Federal budget for 2012; about $8 billion was set aside for this program.  Other funding comes for states, corporation and personal donations.  Those numbers seemed reasonable for about one million children for the year.  Overall cost per child is around $8,000 per year (Multiple sources).  As of this writing, I have yet to uncover what is the total Head Start Program budget.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that the automatic cuts would slice $590 million from federal spending on Head Start, which will be more than $7.9 billion in 2012. The National Education Association said the cuts would eliminate 80,000 of the 962,000 slots for children and more than 30,000 jobs of teachers, aides and administrators in the program. [Head Start Fears Impact of Potential Budget Cuts - By ADESHINA EMMANUEL – New York Times, Published: July 26, 2012].

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Critical Studies and Statements
The Head Start Impact Study Final Report, Executive Summary dated January 2010 provides this final assessment.
In sum, this report finds that providing access to Head Start has benefits for both 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in the cognitive, health, and parenting domains, and for 3-year-olds in the social-emotional domain. However, the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole. For 3-year-olds, there are few sustained benefits, although access to the program may lead to improved parent-child relationships through 1st grade, a potentially important finding for children’s longer term development.

Mr. McCluskey of the Cato Institute said, however: “The question shouldn’t ultimately be are some people helped. The question is, is the program doing the thing it’s supposed to do and doing it in a way that justifies the expense.  He continued: “If the goal is to give low-income students a head start, and it’s not providing that, then it’s not doing the job it exists to do. As a practical matter, there’s no evidence it’s working and it costs billions?” [Head Start Fears Impact of Potential Budget Cuts - By ADESHINA EMMANUEL – New York Times, Published: July 26, 2012].

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My take on Head Start Program
First and foremost, I am not a subject matter expert on this topic.  From my layman’s perspective, this is another example of a well-meaning program that has grown significantly, whose purpose, goals and charter were expanded in the good fiscal times and now there are serious shortfalls in funding and HSP cannot meet existing obligations.

As a parent, grandparent and American citizen – doing what we can to help every American kid, especially education – is a high priority.  I stress the American kids here and not those who are in the country without proper documentation (illegal immigrants) – that in and of itself continues to strain our overall economy.

Final note – If Head Start Programs are to continue – a thorough review needs to be conducted – updating the mission and purpose of HSP.  Establish realistic budget and priorities for austere times.  Budget submission linked directly to federally mandated charter and HSPs strategic and business plans.

What Can You Do?
This largely depends on your perspective and support of Head Start.  If you support the programs - then getting involved, volunteering, donating money and or goods, and being proactive are good starting points.  In addition, I would think getting involved by encouraging others to participate and to contact their local, state and national elected people.


  • How and where does Head Start Programs fit into the overall Education big picture?
  • Does HSP really belong under the Welfare umbrella?
  • Where does education fit on your priority list?


  • Education of our children MUST take priority over many programs/expenses
  • Education today is failing to prepare our children for today's and tomorrows environment
  • Our Children need to be engaged in learning well before their 5th or 6th birthdays
  • We need world-class education from the ground up

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