Head Start

Photo courtesy of the Cortez family

Today’s State of Opportunity story is brought to you by the letter "S," as in study. There’s a new study out that shows Big Bird, Snuffy, Bert and Ernie have a much bigger impact on kids’ lives than just helping them count to ten and learn their ABCs. 

LBJ Library photo by Robert Knudsen

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson stood in the White House Rose Garden to announce a new program that would change the lives of millions of America's children. At the time, he called it "Project Head Start." 

"I believe that this is one of the most constructive, and one of the most sensible, and also one of the most exciting programs that this nation has ever undertaken," Johnson said of Head Start that morning. 

In the half-century since the announcement, millions of kids, and families, have received services through Head Start. The current annual cost of the program is nearing $10 billion. And yet there's huge disagreement even today about what Head Start has accomplished, or even should accomplish as its mission.

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Head Start is one of the most important, and confusing, anti-poverty programs in existence. It serves nearly a million kids a year, at a cost of about $8.5 billion dollars this year to the federal government. It's been in place for a half century. And we have no solid idea if it really works. 

Which is not to say that there isn't research on Head Start. There's a pile of research on Head Start. But the findings of various studies are contradictory. And the biggest, most-widely cited study of Head Start's effectiveness is routinely misinterpreted

One of the problems with assessing Head Start is that Head Start isn't one thing. It's run as a grant program. That means the government sends a check to a local group to operate its own Head Start classrooms. There are rules for how those classrooms should be run – lots of rules – but each Head Start grantee does have flexibility in choosing a curriculum, offering certain services, and in hiring its own teachers (actually, Head Start parents get a big voice in choosing teachers, but that's another thing altogether). 

That creates a challenge for researchers, because there can be wide variation between different Head Start centers around the country. And some Head Start centers seem to provide much bigger benefits to kids than others. 

user Andrew Taylor / Flickr

Thousands of children across Michigan will start kindergarten next week, and the truth is many of them won't be prepared to learn. For many low-income children, this will be their first time in a classroom, so they're playing catch-up from the start. From there it's a short hop, skip and jump to a full-blown achievement gap between low-income kids and their more wealthy peers by the time they're in middle school.

Head Start teachers are not federal employees, but Head Start is funded by the federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services pays for thousands of Head Start programs around the country by awarding thousands of grants. Most of the programs that depend on these grants will be fine during the shutdown; their funding is already in place for the year. But in 23 programs across 11 states, the funding is not in place. It was supposed to come through on Oct. 1st, the day the government shut down. NPR's Audie Cornish talked to the director of one of those 23 programs to find out how families have been affected.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Four-year-olds across Michigan are settling into their pre-school routine, with many programs starting up this week.

Some 16,000 of these kids might not have been able to find spots in a high-quality program if it weren’t for a major expansion, paid for by taxpayers.

At Golightly Education Center in Detroit, Principal Sherrell Hobbs, dressed in an ivory suit and matching four-inch high heels, was on her hands and knees, taping a “red carpet” to the tile floor.

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

When airlines and travelers complained of long flight delays due to the sequester, Congress jumped into action and passed a quick resolution to end the delays. Meanwhile the millions of low-income families who lives are being impacted by the sequester continue to wait for Congress’ help.

The cuts keep rolling in

Dustin Dwyer

Preschools in this country are segregated. The segregation is based not on race, but on class.

No one sat down and made a plan for segregated preschools. It just kind of happened.

You can trace it back to 1965, with the launch of Head Start. It was created to help kids in poverty. Public dollars were set aside to make sure that these three and four year-olds could get an early education. For kids from the middle class and above, there was private preschool, paid for by parents.

Nearly 48 years after Head Start launched, that's the way it is today — separate preschools for separate income levels.

But there are some exceptions, like the preschool at the YWCA in Kalamazoo.  Some of the kids here come from families who spend as much as 400 dollars a month for full-time preschool.  Some come from families that are homeless.

Dustin Dwyer

 The debate over federal spending cuts has made Head Start a major topic of conversation in Washington. Leaders from both parties have been warning that tens of thousands of kids will lose a chance at Head Start’s preschool program, if the across the board spending cuts are allowed to happen.

But to some critics, cutting Head Start would be a good thing. To them, the program is a failure, and not worth the money. 

To analyze the argument, first let’s meet someone who actually goes to Head Start.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

As part of our State of Opportunity reporting project, Michigan Radio's Jennifer White hosted a special, hour-long call-in show examining the importance of pre-K education.

Guests of the show included Governor Rick Snyder, State Senator Roger Kahn, economist Tim Bartik, and Susan Broman, Deputy Superintendent of the Michigan Office of Great Start. The show explored why pre-K education matters for Michigan's most vulnerable kids, the economic impacts of early childhood education, and how the issue affects the state's future.