Kids deserve a head start
August 15, 2001
President Bush's proposed changes in Head Start would destroy our best tool for helping children.
Head Start is a child development program that helps children from birth to age five. It's the only federal program designed to provide comprehensive services -- including health, nutrition, parenting skills and school preparation -- to children from low-income families.
Bush is calling for an increase in Head Start funding by $125 million. But considering inflation and an increasing enrollment, Bush's Head Start budget will provide less money per child.
The program would have served 1 million children next year, according to the Children's Defense Fund. But under Bush's proposed budget, 84,000 children will not get services and 2,500 children currently using the program will be cut off.
In his proposal, Bush recommends restructuring Head Start to be literacy-based. While literacy is important, Bush is drawing funds away from the program's most critical areas, including parental involvement, nutrition and physical health.
Bush's proposed budget will also eliminate $20 million that Congress approved last year for an "early learning" trust fund to help communities care for children under five.
These funding woes come at a time when research shows Head Start can have important impacts on children.
Head Start graduates stay in school longer and are less likely to commit crimes, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The 15-year study followed 989 Chicago students throughout their academic careers. Nearly half of the children who finished one or two years in the preschool program went on to complete high school -- compared to only 38 percent in a comparison group.
Children who attended Head Start were also less likely to commit juvenile crimes. The rate of juvenile arrests was 33 percent lower among children who attended a preschool program, and the rate for violent crime was 41 percent lower.
Although Head Start has historically faced criticism of its teachers' qualifications, the program has made significant improvements in recent years. Today, more than 90 percent of Head Start teachers hold university degrees or state accreditation in early childhood education.
Edward Zigler, one of the co-founders of Head Start in 1964, says Bush's plan will destroy the program's recent progress.
"[Bush] seemed to have no sense that health and nutrition are connected to reading ability, that the very strength of Head Start as a predictor of school success lies in its comprehensive nature," he said in an interview for Salon magazine.
If Bush is serious about improving education for children, his budget should strengthen Head Start, not limit its services.
The 1 million children scheduled to use Head Start next year deserve funding that will cover all aspects of their development. That's their best chance to be healthy and motivated enough to become fully educated.
Claire Herbst is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an intern with the Progressive Media Project. She can be reached at email@example.com.