Making Head Start count


One of the Clinton administration's goals -- and a sound one too -- is its promise to "fully fund" Head Start, a legacy of the 1960s War on Poverty that has earned its longevity and popularity by producing good results.

But Head Start has not survived without scars. Indeed, by appropriating enough money for the program to include more children but not enough to fund the necessary monitoring procedures, previous administrations ensured that Head Start would be vulnerable to charges of uneven quality.

So now it is not enough to pour money into the preschool program (the administration is calling for $4.2 billion) without first giving serious thought to how that money can best be used. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala has instituted a review of Head Start management, and of criticisms that many centers are cramped, unsafe and staffed by unqualified workers.

The administration also promises to develop a plan that will guide Head Start into the next century. That's good news, since a program designed in the 1960s does not necessarily meet the needs of children and their families in the 1990s. The schedule of many Head Start programs is proof. Two-and-a-half hours a day during the school year might have been suitable for the children of women on welfare in the 1960s. But the Clinton administration seeks to help families work their way off the welfare rolls. For those families the traditional, part-time programs simply don't work; they need full-day, year-'round child care, with all the developmental components of Head Start at its best.

The administration also needs to give serious thought to how that care will be provided. Young children do not need to be transported (at great expense) from one program to another -- say, from a Head Start program during school hours to an late-afternoon day care facility. They should be able to spend the full day in one location -- where they can learn, play, have lunch, nap and snack. Head Start by itself may not be able to support all this. But if Head Start is combined creatively with early childhood programs funded by schools or other agencies, there is no reason young children in Maryland and elsewhere cannot have the kind of high-quality day care they need.

The national emphasis on children and their development is long overdue. Head Start can produce results -- graduates of one high-quality program, now adults, have been less likely to get arrested, and are earning more money and becoming home owners more often than peers who were not part of the program. Spending more money on Head Start is important. But the best results will come from spending this money carefully and thoughtfully. Simply throwing money at the problem is not enough.

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