Head Start’s 50th Anniversary

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Head Start, a Great Society program that despite spotty funding has brightened the lives of millions of preschoolers. My daughter is one of them.

Like three-quarters of the public schools here in Washington DC, my daughter’s school is a Title I school, where 40 percent or more of the students are from low-income families. Her pre-K program is funded in part by Head Start, even though my daughter and some of her classmates don’t qualify as low income. As it happens, my daughter’s school, HD Cooke Elementary, helped pioneer the Head Start program in 1965 (see cute picture below).


DC has a cutting-edge universal pre-K program and also participates in a pilot program where all kids eat free thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. So my daughter not only started attending a great public school at age 3, but eats two nutritious meals a day with her buddies, starting with a meet-and-greet breakfast, the social highlight of her day (and often mine).

DC is somewhat atypical in that there has been an influx of upper-income taxpayers, yet the school system still serves a heavily low-income student body. DC public schools were “majority-minority” before this was true for the United States as a whole.

The growing tax base helped pay to retrofit my daughter’s school to add more natural lighting, a beautiful library and gym, and great playgrounds. In 2010, the school, built in 1909 with an extension dating to 1960, became the first school in DC and one of the oldest in the country to be certified greenProjects like these show how infrastructure and human capital investment can combine with job creation and energy efficiency—a win-win-win unless your name is Koch.

Even more important than the facilities are the people. My daughter’s wonderful teachers are seasoned professionals. Unfortunately, federal programs like Head Start and Title I aside, our system of relying mostly on state and local funding for public schools means many school systems serving low-income kids don’t have the resources available to DC.

Quality pre-K and afterschool programs are helping draw more middle-class kids to some once-shunned public schools in DC, though some parents still maneuver to get their children into schools in wealthier neighborhoods that often don’t offer these programs (DC parents who participate in the school lottery are guaranteed a pre-K slot, but not all schools offer pre-K programs). (Almost) all is fair in love and war and getting your child a good education, but it’s easy for parents to conflate test scores—which largely reflect the advantages and disadvantages kids have going in—with school quality, undercutting efforts to turn around well-run, but lower-testing, schools. This modern-day equivalent of “white flight” (though not limited to white parents) may be exacerbated by DC’s unfortunate emphasis on charter schools

Is it wasteful for taxpayers to pay for preschool and meals for middle-class kids like my daughter? Aside from the fact that Title I schools benefit from socioeconomic diversity, the public returns to early childhood education have been well documented. Same goes for kids attending school on a full stomach and without any of the stigma attached to a handout. It would be a hassle to administer a paid lunch program for the kids at my daughter’s school who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

There are also indirect benefits to universal programs, keeping in mind the adage that programs for the poor become poor programs. While the meals at my daughter’s school are nothing fancy, they’re reasonably healthy and appealing by public school standards (think hospital food without the jello). Though this may owe something to the first lady’s crusade against childhood obesity, in the long run it will take the political clout of upper-income parents to counter the noxious influence of the frozen-pizza lobby.

As my daughter this morning happily greeted her classmates like a socialite at a soiree, I thought to myself what a wonderful world it would be if we embraced a broader, bolder approach to education starting with universal Pre-K, a dream that started with Head Start.