Head Start Turns 52 Today. Congress Should Protect Its Funding

This piece originally appeared as an op-ed in Education Week.

The early-education program gives disadvantaged children a chance to succeed


My dad, Sargent Shriver, created Head Start 52 years ago today to help transform the lives of the most vulnerable children in our country. As the director of President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, my father brought together national experts to develop a child-development program to help communities meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children. From the beginning, Head Start was designed to provide comprehensive early-childhood and parenting education services.

Since its creation, Head Start has helped prepare more than 33 million American children for kindergarten and beyond.

Some Head Start graduates, like the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, have gone on to distinguished careers in public service. Others have become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or pursued many other professions.

Today’s Head Start students include children like Jahzara, a girl who participates in a Head Start program in Arkansas. Because of Head Start, she entered kindergarten cognitively, socially, and emotionally prepared. That means she knew how to spell her name, identify shapes and recognize letters, and work and play well with other children. Her mom told her teachers that because of Head Start, she’s confident her daughter is ready for kindergarten.

But here in the United States, not all kids have the same chance to attend a high-quality preschool program. In fact according to recent data, 53 percent of 3- and 4-year-old American kids are not enrolled. These children, especially those from lower-income homes, often start school behind their peers. By age four, a child living in poverty is as much as 18 months behind developmentally from their more well-off peers. Many never catch up. This missed opportunity carries consequences far beyond kindergarten. Children living in poverty who don’t participate in high-quality early-education programs are 25 percent more likely to drop out of school and 60 percent more likely to never attend college.

Early education not only helps prepare children to succeed, it helps our economy.

Researchers, including the Nobel Prize-winning economist and University of Chicago professor James Heckman have revealed that when children participate in high-quality early-learning programs in the first five years of life, they perform better in school, attain higher-paying jobs, rely less on social programs, and contribute more to the economy.

In fact, Heckman’s most recent research released in December 2016 shows that high-quality early-childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves, providing a 13 percent return on investment per year, per child.

On the other hand, when early deficits in literacy and math skills persist into adulthood, they are associated with negative economic consequences for the individuals, taxpayers, and America’s economy.

Despite our current political climate, in which it seems that the two parties can’t agree on much of anything, we find that there is bipartisan agreement on early ed. In the fiscal year 2017 omnibus legislation approved overwhelmingly by Congress earlier this month, there was increased funding for critical early-learning programs, including Head Start.

But the fiscal year 2018 budget proposed by President Donald Trump slashes funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that supports Head Start, by 18 percent. These cuts could lead to fewer low-income children having access to the program.

According to a nationwide March 2017 poll commissioned by Save the Children Action Network, that is not what voters said they wanted when they elected Trump president. The poll found that 86 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Head Start. Rather than cut it, 82 percent of those polled said they would support increasing or maintaining current levels of funding. In fact, 70 percent of self-identified Trump voters want to increase or maintain Head Start funding, while only 15 percent of them want to cut or eliminate it.

To put it simply, the people who elected President Trump expect him to protect and grow Head Start because they know the program works.

I am well aware of budgets at both the state and federal levels are tight. Unfortunately, the reality is that not everything can be a priority. But the long-lasting benefits of high-quality early-childhood education are too great to ignore.

That’s why I urge Congress to protect funding for early-learning programs like Head Start as the legislators consider fiscal year 2018 appropriations. Investing in kids today helps create a better tomorrow.

Mark K. Shriver is the president of Save the Children Action Network, which seeks to mobilize Americans to ensure that every child in the United States has access to high-quality early-childhood education.