My friend E.J. Dionne Jr., a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, is a fine man with, I feel safe in asserting, a warm heart. But he betrays in a recent column a persistent failing of the left -- imperviousness to evidence.
Describing Speaker Boehner's tactics in the budget fights with Democrats, Dionne wrote:
"Begin with the outrageous $1.1 billion, 15 percent cut from Head Start, a program that offers preschool education to roughly 965,000 poor children. According to the Center for Law and Public Policy, this would knock 218,000 kids out of Head Start and force 16,000 classrooms to close. That is an excellent way to lose the future, as Obama ought to be saying. What could be a better use of public money than helping our poorest children early in life so they might achieve more in school, and later?"
Like most liberals, Dionne is enchanted with the idea of Head Start -- the romance of a government program that would provide care, nutrition, education, and skills to impoverished preschoolers in order to erase, to the degree possible, the handicaps poverty imposes. That was the idea in 1965, when Head Start was founded. Lyndon Johnson declared, upon signing the enabling bill that "Today, we reach out to five and half million children held behind their more fortunate schoolmates by the dragging anchor of poverty." Head Start, he promised, would be their "passport" out.
It would have been worth the $166 billion taxpayers have spent on the program since 1965 if a significant portion of Head Start alumni did improve their educational outcomes and escape poverty. But that did not happen.
As any number of studies have demonstrated over the years, the effects of Head Start are modest to nugatory. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom chronicled the failure in "No Excuses." One study found that Head Start students were slightly more likely to be immunized than others -- a good thing of course, but a) not primarily what the program was sold as, and b) achievable far more cheaply through other programs like Medicaid. A 1969 study found that any gains participants displayed faded away in the early grades. By third grade, Head Start graduates were indistinguishable from their non-participating classmates. Rather than scrap the program, President Nixon (a sheep in wolf's clothing where domestic policy was concerned) concluded that, "Head Start ... must begin earlier in life, and last longer, to achieve lasting benefits."