Launched in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, Project Head Start began as a relatively modest six- to eight-week summer program serving just over half a million children. By 1989, Head Start was serving only about 452,000 children, only one in five who were eligible, but they were enrolled in programs that spanned a full academic year.
Quantity versus quality is the central Head Start issue. President Clinton has called for funding Head Start at a level that will serve every eligible child, raising spending by $785 million next year and by $3.1 billion in 1997 to more than double the current level. Even so, the administration's figures fall short of the $10 billion over five years recommended by the Children's Defense Fund, the advocacy group formerly chaired by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
$10 billion? That figure sounds like a budget-buster, but there is no doubt that funding a full-day, year-round program will be expensive. Moreover, even Head Start's strongest advocates admit that not every program meets the standards that produce glowing results in the lives of many impoverished children and their families. In fact, the focus in recent years on increasing the number of children in Head Start has sometimes come at the expense of the quality of those programs.
Head Start brought a new concept to pre-school programs, broadening the scope to include health services and attention to emotional, social and motivational development. Most important, perhaps, was its focus on including families, teaching parents that they can influence what happens to their children outside the home.
By paying attention to physical and emotional development as well as academic readiness -- and, especially, by bringing parents into the process -- Head Start helps keep children healthy and families functional. That in itself saves money -- about $3 for every $1 spent, according to Mr. Clinton. The president believes Head Start funding is an investment in the future, one that, like good roads and sound bridges, is essential to building a competitive, prosperous America.
His concerns, however, must be reconciled with another danger facing the country -- a deficit that in itself threatens the future prosperity of every American. Given that reality, one thing at least is clear: Any increases for Head Start should focus as much -- or more -- on the quality of programs as on the numbers of children served. The country may not be able to do all it should do for its children. But whatever it can do, it should do well.