According to the federal Administration for Children and Families, 3,491 preschoolers from low-income families in the District of Columbia were enrolled in the federal Head Start program in 2011. The federal government spent more than $27 million to provide these youngsters with extra help to get them academically ready for school. It was all a waste.
As Wednesday's Washington Examiner editorial ("Head Start finally gets tested -- and flunks") pointed out, a congressionally mandated federal study that followed Head Start participants to third grade found that the program had "no statistically measurable effect" on the cognitive abilities of 3- and 4-year-olds on 41 different measures of achievement, including language and math skills.
After spending more than $180 billion nationwide, this 48-year-old War on Poverty program joins other failed government efforts to eradicate poverty. For the 20 million American children who've been enrolled in Head Start over the years, it's been nothing more than expensive babysitting. But for District residents whose children had to enter one of the worst public school systems in the nation, Head Start's unfulfilled promises were particularly cruel.
After spending so much to achieve so little, it's time to admit that government bureaucrats don't have a clue how to fix the poverty problem. Children born to single mothers with little education or job prospects often wind up repeating the same dysfunctional cycle. The wealth and wage gaps between the races persist, and the fact that only 14 percent of the District's African-American children live in two-parent families remains a jarring reality that cannot be ignored as a major contributing cause. Despite repeated attempts, government has failed to replicate the well-documented academic, financial and social benefits of a stable, two-parent family on children. So let's stop pretending that it can.
An obvious first step is the promotion and strengthening of intact families in the District. District residents need to hear the truth: No matter how much money is spent, government programs cannot replace the tangible benefits of a father's presence in a child's day-to-day life.
Mayor Vincent Gray has been a vocal proponent of universal early childhood education programs like Head Start. The mayor stubbornly refuses to support school choice for school-age children, even though charter schools and vouchers have a much better track record of boosting academic achievement for poor minority children. It's time to look carefully at what isn't working, and change course by picking up on what is working.