George Bush paused a few moments from liberating Iraq, reconstructing Afghanistan, and pondering whether to work his magic on Liberia and Iran, to offer up a new plan for the decades-old federal babysitting service called Head Start. His idea is that the program ought to be turned over to the states and go beyond offering nutrition (snacks) and health (brushing teeth, etc.) to actually teaching enrolled kids a thing or two about words, sounds, and shapes. It's not a terrible impulse, but he is wrongly embracing the notion that the federal government ought to be in this business (running or funding such programs) in the first place.
Neither he nor I knows what goes on in the typical Head Start center. The ones he's visited are Potemkin Villages. But the idea that the teachers in them systematically work to prevent kids from knowing about sounds, shapes, and words is crazy. Given that the kids in the program come from the poorest homes, and experience general household neglect, intuition suggests that these teachers have their hands full as it is, and will be unmoved by a new declaration from The Leader.
Let's be clear on what we know about Head Start: it has not done what it promised to do. Researchers have had a huge incentive to demonstrate its advantages and successes over private day care or home care, but hundreds of studies have failed to do so. Even the most famous HHS study purporting to show its glories used no control group and found that Head Start kids enter kindergarten "substantially below" national averages.
After $50 billion in spending, it has yielded no long-term academic advantages, so supporters of the program have scaled back their claims. It went from being a program that would end poverty and equalize all of society to one that merely seeks to improve nutrition and personal hygiene of the kids who spend time there. That way supporters can claim the program has worked and also call for its expansion toward a European-style national system for all income groups.
What Bush suggests doesn't represent a serious alternative. It is a typical Republican reform: give money to the states and tell the states to get tough, with less hugging and more discipline. This is the tried-and-true GOP approach that attempts to fob off authoritarian socialism as a back-to-basics federalism.
In the end, however, we are left with more spending (Bush wants another $100 million thrown at the program) and government doing more things that government should not be doing at all. The GOP faithful are suckers for these types of reforms, mainly because the reforms ruffle the feathers of the entrenched bureaucracy (as does any change). As if on cue, all the usual special interests have denounced Bush's plan as a secret plot to abolish Head Start. If only!
The debate over whether the program should emphasize just snacks and teeth brushing, or whether it should also focus on academics, can be understood in light of a hypothetical Soviet example. Let's say there are two central planners arguing in Moscow about public priorities. One economist says that Russia is a great producer of grain and so should emphasize and expand that. The other says, no, it is a great manufacturer of steel and so it should emphasize and expand that. Who is right? Neither. This decision is best left to the market economy, not central planners. But neither economist is willing to accept the idea that the market knows better than he does. In the same way, whether kids age 2 to 5 ought to be taught more or less about health and reading and the like is not really for the government to say.
But Bush is apparently under the impression that he should personally plan what and how poor kids in the country ought to be taught. "We want better than OK in America," he says. "We want excellence." And what is excellence? He is willing to take a stab at that. "We can have children assessed by asking simple questions. You know, words go left to right. Are you able to identify certain sounds?"
What in the world would happen if the Head Start program were abolished? That we should even be asked to explain such a thing highlights the dangers of these government programs. Once they are in place, people somehow can't imagine a world without them. If the federal government had a program to supply watches to everyone, those who said that watches should be supplied on the free market would be regarded as cruel and reckless, exhibiting an unwarranted faith in the power of the free market.
Nonetheless, it remains true that those who have kids ought to bear the costs associated with the early years of their life, just as they have throughout human history. They should not be allowed to slough it off on to others, via coercion. Besides, to provide for children is the best way to socialize both parents and kids for life in a free society, in which individuals enjoy opportunity and bear responsibility.
There is no worse way to begin life in this world than with a dependency relationship to the state as versus parents. Parents are led to believe that there are no costs or responsibilities associated with raising kids, and kids are led to think of the government as their benefactor. This impression forms their political inclinations for the rest of their lives.
Already, most kids are sucked into the body of the state via the public school system that traps them from the age of 7 through 18. It is a very bad idea to expand this approach. Even if Head Start could be shown to "work" in some academic sense, such that those who attend the program do better than kids who do not, it still should not be supported. Child rearing is not a function proper to the government.
Ever since the Progressive Era, the political elites in this country have been convinced that all society's problems could be resolved if we could somehow replace irresponsible parents with the responsible hand of public authority. The idea is that bad parenting creates cycles of poverty and abuse. If people could be properly socialized from an early age by those who know best, these cycles would come to an end.
The reality is very different. What actually ends up replacing parents is a monstrous bureaucratic system that creates a divide between the generations. This system is buffeted by the winds of political change depending on which party is in power. The values absorbed by children are collectivist, with a strong degree of emphasis on political ideology. Such a system is just right for a country that aspires to be managed by the strong hand of a benevolent dictator, but not for one in which parents and communities manage their own affairs.
Bush's proposed reforms will doubtless be supported by the GOP faithful. But mark my words: it will end up more expensive and more unworkable than the present system. The only real way to reform a failed Great Society leftover like Head Start is by cutting its budget to 0 (a number that reads the same right to left or left to right).
July 11, 2003
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