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A Budget Line That Reflects Divide in Politics: Early Learning. Spend. More. Now.

Perhaps no federal program represents the ideological divide over spending than does Head Start

Perhaps no federal program represents the ideological divide over spending than does Head Start. Head Start is a comprehensive early-learning project for low-income children.

This one budget line is critical to Indian country: American Indian and Alaska Native students have the lowest level of educational attainment of any racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to the National Indian Education Association. And, while many tribes operate Head Start or other early learning programs, American Indians and Alaska Natives are still less likely to be enrolled in such programs.

On the national scale, Head Start is but a tiny slice of the appropriations pie, less than one-fifth of one percent, yet, as a White House fact sheet puts it, the impact of sequestration would diminish our “ability to teach our kids the skills they’ll need for the jobs of the future would be put at risk. Seventy thousand young children would be kicked off Head Start, 10,000 teacher jobs would be put at risk, and funding for up to 7,200 special education teachers, aides, and staff could be cut.”

Mark Trahant

This is the ideological filter I am using: The United States (and much of the developed world) has a long-term demographic imbalance. There are more older people than younger people. And that fact means there will be a smaller workforce to pay the bills. So in my way of thinking, we need to do everything we can to improve education at all levels and prepare this next, smaller generation to work smarter.

This is what President Barack Obama proposed in the State of the Union:

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. ... I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance.”

But that idea, early childhood learning, is where the ideological divide grows because many conservatives do not see this either as a federal issue or as a proper role for government.

The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey M. Burke wrote that Head Start “doesn’t need more money. It needs to be put on the chopping block. If Congress remains intent on funding preschool, it should at least refrain from relegating low-income children to underperforming Head Start centers. Far better to let these kids take their “share” of Head Start funding to a private preschool provider of their own choosing.”

The evidence for this argument is a study by the federal government that tracked 5,000 children, some in Head Start as well as those who were not part of the program, through the end of the third grade. As Burke writes, “Head Start had no statistically measurable effects on cognitive ability, including numerous measures of reading, language and math ability.”

In other words: Head Start doesn’t work.

But that study is not the only data. Decades of studies show that Head Start graduates are far more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and get jobs at higher rates than other young people in the same community.

Nobel laureate economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, has said that Head Start should be improved, but any study based on elementary school performance alone misses out on key elements, such as the quality of the third grade that Head Start students later attend.

This is certainly true in Indian country. All too often a good Head Start program is wiped out by a weak elementary school.

On the larger issue of Head Start effectiveness, Heckman recently told The Washington Post that early learning is a smart investment. “They’re very comparable with stocks at the end of the second World War. Return was about 6.9 percent. Pretty comparable. It’s a range, because there are certain subjective elements. But that’s a very high rate of return and it’s far superior to a range of activities, compared to, say, Job Corps, where the return is negative. I’m an economist. I would talk about both the benefits and the costs. And if the benefits really outweigh the costs, I think that’s something very rare. So it’s a good investment,” Heckman said.

A Brookings study says Head Start has passed the cost-benefit test and now spending more money makes sense. “A serious effort along these lines might cost as much as $40 billion or $50 billion per year, and would have the long-run effect of dramatically reducing educational (and income) disparities in America and improving the overall competitiveness of the American economy—and pass a benefit-cost test to boot.”

This is where austerity gets it all wrong. And, we are back to the great ideological division. Smaller government won’t educate a future work force.

So we must not cut this spending cut now. Because of the country’s demographics, this is exactly the right time to spend more tax dollars, smarter money, on education from early learning through college (although, higher education is about to get much cheaper, but that’s another story). But across-the-board spending cuts, or a zeal to cut government at all costs, is the wrong direction. We need to spend more building the future.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: