Competing Visions

January 1, 2004

Project Head Start was created during the heady, idealistic days of the mid-1960s. Through two seminal victories, the 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the civil-rights movement had won equality in the eyes of the law, but the economic and social legacies of centuries of slavery and racial discrimination remained. President Lyndon Johnson believed that it was the nation’s duty to provide not just legal equality but also equality of opportunity. In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, he called for the :next and more profound stage” in the civil-rights struggle. “We seek not just freedom but opportunity? not just equality as a right and theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.” Johnson’s War on Poverty would include a host of initiatives designed to bring blacks and other disadvantaged Americans to what he called “the starting line” of American Life with the skills and abilities necessary to compete on a level playing field. The War on Poverty focused on education as a tool for upward mobility, and Head Start was to become one of the cornerstones of the federal effort.

The idea for Head Start, a preschool program for disadvantaged children, emerged from the observation that, on average, poor and minority children arrive at school already behind their peers in the intellectual skills and abilities required for academic achievement.These deficits in turn lead to poor performance in school, which narrows the economic opportunities disadvantaged children encounter when they become adults. In order to counteract the corrosive influences of turbulent neighborhoods, shoddy health care, and undereducated parents, Head Start would attempt to prepare children to flourish in school.

Nearly 40 years after its creation,Head Start has gained the favor of Democrats and Republicans alike. Its budget in 2003 was $6.7 billion, more than tripling (in real terms) since 1990 (see Figure 1 and Table 1). Real per-pupil spending increased from $1,380 in 1966 to $7,170 in 2002.However, despite Head Start’s long history and ever-expanding budget, the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, between white and minority, is still substantial, both during the preschool years and thereafter.This stubborn fact has caused many to question Head Start’s strategies and direction.Housed in the Department of Health and Human Services, Head Start has in the past emphasized not just early education but also socialization and giving poor children and their families access to an array of nutritional, health, and social services.

Now the Bush administration has proposed reorienting the program to emphasize the acquisition of intellectual skills and to prepare poor kids for school. In order to achieve this objective, the administration is trying to align Head Start more closely with the public school system. After less than a year in office, President Bush implemented by administrative rule a program called “Good Start, Grow Smart,” the central thrust of which is to instruct Head Start teachers across the nation in methods for improving school readiness.The program also helps local Head Start centers develop an accountability system that assesses children’s learning in literacy, language, and numeracy. The administration had made an earlier proposal to move Head Start to the Department of Education, which would have signaled the program’s new commitment to intellectual development. But after encountering fierce competition, in February 2003, the administration proposed an even more dramatic overhaul of Head Start. The plan is to turn control ofHead Start over to the states, as long as they commit to making school readiness the program’s chief priority and to meet several other requirements.Currently, federal funds flow directly to local Head Start centers, which are run primarily by community- based groups. As a result, Head Start teachers, staff, and parents,working through the National Head Start Association in Washington, have viscerally opposed the administration’s proposals, fearing the dilution ofHead Start’s program of comprehensive services in favor of the focus on school readiness. They regard this as a repudiation of Head Start’s historical mission as well as a threat to their control of the program. The Bush proposal, now before Congress, has rekindled a debate that began in 1964.