All Kids Want a Head Start

Without universal preschool, middle class families vie for the same early education treatment that those who live below the poverty line are afforded.

Mario Villafuerte/Getty,Mario Villafuerte

In New York City, affluent parents sign up for pre-school while their child is still in the womb. Waiting lists are long and it’s become an article of faith that the earlier the schooling the better to give kids a head start on the competition that lies ahead. With the politicians talking about income inequality and its insidious effect on children, everyone was relieved when cuts to the early education program Head Start were restored in the recent bipartisan budget deal, but federal funds only cover two out of five eligible kids.

In the District of Columbia, where I live, four to five thousand kids whose family income falls below the poverty line ($24,000 for a family of four) should be served by Head Start, but aren’t. Critics say the program is not cost-effective, that academic gains made at the end of a year fade over time. Advocates say that early intervention has benefits beyond test scores because it exposes kids to language and structure they may not get at home.

President Obama wants more than Head Start; he wants universal preschool. So do New York City Mayor DeBlasio, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and a growing cadre of politicians across the country. Preschool is a hot issue, which is why I eagerly accepted an invitation to visit El Centro Rosemount, a Head Start center in the District that also enrolls both full tuition kids and kids subsidized by the DC government.

The large California mission-style stucco building with a red tile roof was once a home for unwed mothers run by an Episcopal charity, but since 1972 it has been an early childhood center funded in part by Head Start. On my tour, a three-year old boy rushed over to show me his book. “C O U R D O R O Y,” he said, saying each letter and then proudly declaring the word. (Courdoroy is a toy bear that lives in a department store).

For me, this child epitomizes the value of early schooling, the way it can instill a love of learning. But it’s expensive. One preschool student costs Rosemount $12,000 per year, $18,000 for a toddler, and $27,500 for an infant. The Center serves 372 children and has a waiting list of over 350 families. Affluent families in the heavily Hispanic Adams Morgan area where Rosemount is located are paying customers, but the Center estimates it loses more money with them than it does with the children who are subsidized. Upper income families are attracted by the dual-language, Spanish and English, program, and the Center’s CEO says some parents are lobbying to add Chinese and Arabic.

Rosemount relies on federal grants, local government, private foundations and individuals to support its $4 million annual budget. Funding is fragile, says CEO Jacques Rondeau, a retired Air Force colonel who likens running a squadron to running a day care center “because pilots are just big kids.” He expects more cutbacks to Head Start when budget sequestration kicks in again in 2015. “People worrying about picking up Head Start bills will be picking up bills for prison and a lot of other things,” he says. “That’s my theory.”

That’s what advocates believe, but there is conflicting evidence about the enduring value of early intervention. “You can cite facts, but they’re open to interpretation,” says Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. One thing we do know, he says, is that the lowest performing kids in poor families are those who stay at home and don’t receive Head Start or any other outside intervention. “We talk about closing the gap, then we should focus on the poor,” he says. “Kids from middle-class families don’t get that much boost [from preschool]. Look how tight money is, and we’re going to subsidize people making a hundred thousand bucks? It comes down to what are we going to do with our money. We don’t have a lot; we should focus on the poor kids.”

Try telling middle-class families they don’t need preschool for their children when they’re conditioned to look for every advantage. A hundred thousand dollars doesn’t stretch that far in New York City, which is why de Blasio and Cuomo want universally funded programs open to all regardless of income. Parents today are convinced that if their child doesn’t read by the time he or she enters elementary school, valuable ground is lost. The issue has been so energized politically that targeting resources only on the poor would inevitably spark a damaging backlash.

Head Start has endured for 50 years, and enjoys iconic status in America’s safety net. Critics may grumble that the modest gains that can be measured with test scores don’t justify the cost, but Head Start advocates cross party lines and more access to Head Start-like programs for more affluent families is driving the political debate. “Some people still have Head Start in a church basement with poor children—that social work, loving heart mentality—but that’s a long time ago,” says Lucia Palacios, a consultant who works with Rosemount to navigate the maze of regulations associated with federal Head Start funding. “Head Start is now a business.”

With any business, quality control and cost must be taken into account. Judging by the political interest and growing momentum, Lucia and her colleagues at Rosemount know this is a breakthrough moment. “Because there is such a microscope on us, we carry the responsibility to show what we’re doing is effective,” she says. “It’s like your mother-in-law coming to visit. You always maintain a good home, but you elevate your performance.”