I started to write a piece decrying the latest op-ed explaining why early education spending is misguided and wasteful. On Sunday, two researchers at the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote an op-ed in the New York Times opposing the expansion of Head Start funding in the House-passed version of the stimulus bill.
But are they really slamming early education?
The authors’ (Douglas Besharov and Douglas Call) main contention is this:
Head Start and similar prekindergarten programs could truly help disadvantaged children, but many studies have shown that Head Start, as it is now managed, is failing them.
Sara Mead pushes back in the excellent Early Ed Watch blog, stating, “Head Start isn’t really as ineffective as [they] claim.” She’s right, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the program. But Besharov and Call are also right: programs like Head Start “could truly help disadvantaged children.” They should get some credit for making this argument rather than the more polemical arguments advanced by other pre-K critics: they are acknowledging that early childhood education does, in fact, offer the promise of increased achievement for at-risk children. The Wall Street Journal offered, by contrast, an article last August headlined “Protect Our Kids from Preschool“. It sounds to my ears like significant progress when AEI starts diluting their rhetoric to allow for the possibility of a successful Head Start program.
So both Mead and the Dougs agree that Head Start isn’t as effective as it could be and that quality varies across programs. Mead acknowledges that “there is variability in Head Start quality, and many providers aren’t as good as they should be”; Besharov and Call write “yes, there are some really good ones.” They even agree on some reforms: the Dougs believe that Head Start should be improved by identifying and replicating successful centers across the country. Mead writes that state advisory councils, authorized in 2007 and which among other things could identify these model programs, cannot take shape without increased federal funding.
Now, it might be that Besharov and Call are simply being disingenuous with their argument. They are arguing here that we shouldn’t increase funding without demanding reform. But many early education advocates counter that quality improvements require additional funding, to hire bachelor degreed teachers and to fund state advisory councils, for instance. The more cynical pre-K advocates among us wouldn’t be surprised if Besharov and Call later extended their argument to oppose reform efforts that are tied to increased funding.
But I’m being generous today, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. “Anti” pre-K forces demand reform and accountability in exchange for more money. And “pro” pre-K forces demand money in exchange for reform and accountability. So what’s the problem here? A reformed Head Start program (or a replacement of the program) would benefit kids more, while additional funding would benefit more kids. Sounds like there’s a deal to be struck somewhere in here.