There are few institutions more sacrosanct in Washington than President Johnson's Head Start program. The federal government spent more than $7.9 billion on the program in 2012 alone to provide preschool services for nearly 1 million low-income Americans.
The program represents everything that is supposedly great about the liberal welfare state. It redistributes resources from wealthy to poor. It uses the power of the federal government to combat inequality by giving poor and minority students an educational boost before they fall behind their wealthier peers.
There's just one problem: It doesn't work.
Until recently, no one even conducted a scientific test of Head Start's effectiveness. Republicans demanded one in 1998, and the Department of Health and Human Services commissioned it four years later. The ongoing randomized study of Head Start was based on a nationally representative sample of 5,000 children who applied for the program in 2002. Approximately half of the subjects received Head Start services, while the other half did not. The students were then tested on their language, literacy, math and school performance skills.
The initial results were supposed to be published by the HHS in March 2009. But the Obama administration delayed this until January 2010, at which point the reason became obvious. As the 2010 Head Start Impact Study report notes, "the benefits of access to Head Start at age four are largely absent by 1st grade for the program population as a whole." Specifically, the language, literacy, math and school performance skills of the Head Start children all failed to improve.
Since 1965, the federal government has spent $180 billion on Head Start. Democrats have used the program as a partisan political weapon for decades. President Obama's 2012 stump speech even included a specific line about evil Republicans wanting to "kick children out of Head Start programs."
But despite the obvious political salience of this program, not one major news outlet covered the study demonstrating its utter ineffectiveness. The New York Times, Washington Post and even the Wall Street Journal ignored this taxpayer-funded, official, scientific HHS study.
Now, the HHS has finally published a follow-up to its 2010 study that follows the same children through the end of third grade. And again, the HHS has concluded that Head Start is ineffective, concluding that Heat Start resulted in "very few impacts ... in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices." And those impacts that were found "did not show a clear pattern of favorable or unfavorable impacts for children."
Does that sound like a program you'd want to spend $8 billion on next year?
Soon after he was sworn into office, Obama promised that when it came to education, his administration would "use only one test when deciding what ideas to support with your precious tax dollars: It's not whether an idea is liberal or conservative, but whether it works." Head Start doesn't work. Will Obama follow through on his promise and end the program, or will he cling to it as a "liberal idea"?