Early Childhood Education Clearly Works. Why, Then, Is It Not Made Available to All Who Need It?

By Clarence Hightower  

In 1964, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared America’s “unconditional war on poverty,” the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Community Action movement were born. This past year, Community Action and its 1,000-plus agencies nationwide celebrated 50 years of service to low-income communities.

In 2015, Head Start, one of the first programs launched by the Office of Economic Opportunity, will also celebrate its 50th anniversary. One of the first federal programs designed to tackle the issue of systemic poverty, Head Start currently has served approximately 22 million low-income children and their families in its history.

Serving children ages three to five, the Head Start program takes a holistic approach to service emphasizing parent engagement, proper nutrition, and health-related services in addition to early childhood education. In 1994, the Early Head Start Program was established providing pregnant women and children through age three with home- and center-based services to promote the social, emotional and cognitive health and development of young low-income children. Many Early Head Start children transition into Head Start programs.

Since the mid-1970s, there have been numerous studies debating the effectiveness of the Head Start Program. Several studies ardently support the benefits and success of Head Start; other reports express mixed results, and some even assert the benefits of Head Start are limited and likely to “fade” as a child advances into elementary school.

While observing this longstanding controversy, many scholars and educators have pointed out how the debate over Head Start often takes shape along partisan political lines. Earlier this year, Hannah Matthews, senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, declared that asking whether or not Head Start works is, in fact, the “wrong question.”

Matthews writes, “It’s a tired debate born of selective reading and contrarian sound bites: Does Head Start work? The research shows that it clearly does. Decades of studies, including the most recent Head Start Impact Study, have found that at the end of Head Start, prior to kindergarten, the program shows wide-ranging positive effects on children and families from language and pre-reading abilities to parenting skills.”

A myriad of scholarly research studies, including recent studies from Columbia University and California Polytechnic State University, further support the notion that Head Start works and emphasize the monumental role early childhood education plays in the lives of low-income children. Having spent the past six-plus years as the executive director of an agency that is the sole provider of Head Start services in Ramsey County, I truly believe that Head Start is of paramount value to our community and low-income communities throughout the nation.

Furthermore, I contend that early childhood education is among the most vital elements in the fight against generational poverty. And yet it is clear that early childhood education, for all of its positive attributes, is in and of itself not enough to make the difference low-income children need us to make.

At Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, our Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve approximately 1,800 children and their families each year. In the United States, more than one million low-income children and their families participate in Head Start programming. However, this means that millions more across America are not being served due to the limits of federal and state funding.

Then of course there is also the issue of funding in elementary and secondary schools, particularly the disproportionate lack of funds available to schools that serve poor communities. In 2011, the United States Department of Education reported that nearly one-half of low-income schools fail to receive their “fair share of state and local funds.”

If there is any truth to the aforementioned Head Start “fade” that some critics advance, is it possible that this is due to the fact that Head Start children are still likely to attend neighborhood schools that are woefully underfunded.  In 2012, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign proclaimed that “Providing every child with a fair and substantive opportunity to learn is nothing less than a moral imperative.”

I have trouble understanding why anyone wouldn’t agree that access to quality education for all is a moral imperative. Early childhood education works, but only for those who have access to it. And for those children who do have access to it, how long and how well can early childhood education work if their elementary and secondary schools don’t work?

How, in 2014, can we not create local, state and federal budgets, all of which are moral documents, that ensure every child has access to early childhood education as well as quality primary and secondary schools? Perhaps the fact that we don’t provide quality education to all is why the Program for International Student Assessment ranks American high school students 36th in the world in math, reading and science.

Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.