Head Start takes a back seat
David L. Kirp, San Francisco Chronicle
By David L. Kirp, San Francisco Chronicle
Question: What do condoms, sod for the Capitol Mall and Head Start have in common?
Answer: They've all been attacked by critics of the economic recovery legislation.
Good riddance to the contraceptives, the sod and the rest of the "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" one-liner items jammed into the original stimulus bill. But Head Start is also on the chopping block, and that's no laughing matter. The Senate seems poised to cut more than $1 billion from the program, halving the sum approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The political calculus is clear - the Head Start cut is just one of many demanded by a handful of GOP lawmakers whose votes are needed for Senate passage of the stimulus bill. But this decision, if it stands, is a mistake whose reverberations will be felt long after the recession is over.
Conservatives argued that Head Start should be kept out of the economic recovery package because it's not an economic pump-primer. That's flat-out wrong.
Early childhood programs employ lots of people - more, in some states, than retail apparel or construction. Every added Head Start dollar means new jobs for teachers, aides and staff, many of them poor women who are the economic anchors of their communities. Providing more Head Start slots also means that poor parents have time to find work or get the training they need to secure a decent job. The $1.05 billion that's in jeopardy of being cut would create thousands of teaching and staff positions, in addition to the jobs generated when Head Start centers start buying cribs, crayons, cookies and computers.
More people working and fewer people receiving welfare or unemployment insurance - that's a textbook definition of economic stimulus. What's more, because those who will benefit are poor and working-class families, the paychecks will be cashed quickly, and that's another economic plus.
Although job-creation is uppermost on everyone's mind, Head Start isn't a jobs program. It's a kids' program, which offers the country's neediest children the kind of cognitive and emotional support that middle-class families take for granted. Adding back $1.05 billion to its budget - roughly 1/800th of the economic recovery package - would enable more than 72,000 children to benefit. That's a sound investment. The achievement gap between poor and middle-class kids emerges well before children enter kindergarten; and solid research shows that high-quality early education is the best way to close that gap.
In their book, "The Race between Education and Technology," Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz demonstrate that America's competitive edge has historically depended on our having led the world in delivering a first-rate education. During the past generation, however, we've lost that edge. By boosting spending on education generally and early education in particular, the stimulus legislation offers a rare chance for us to regain some of this lost ground.
The details of the economic recovery bill will doubtlessly change as the measure makes its way to the White House. Although President Obama has endorsed the budget compromise, the Wall Street Journal quotes an unnamed White House source as characterizing the Obama administration's acquiescence as a "strategic retreat." This week, as the legislators labor to resolve their disagreements, they'll have one last shot at doing right for an ailing economy and doing right by thousands of poor kids.
David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of "The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics."2/10/2009