THE BUSH administration's proposal to shift the Head Start program to the states should win an award for the worst domestic policy proposal of the year. To understand why, let's review the history of the program and the commitment the nation has made to enhance the development of its young, poor children.
Head Start was founded in 1965 at the peak of the civil rights revolution and when the war on poverty was established. It was at a time when Dr. Bettye Caldwell, renowned education researcher, along with several others, had documented that well-formulated, comprehensive child development programs could prevent the developmental decline observed in young children growing up in poverty.
Policy makers understood that interrupting the cycle of poverty depended upon improving the developmental outcome of these children.
They decided that this could best be accomplished by establishing contracts between the federal government and local communities, which have proved to be remarkably effective in giving people in local communities - and particularly parents - ownership and commitment for the health, education, and welfare of their young children.
This relationship is virtually unique among federal programs. It has been remarkably functional and robust. With the states facing severe budgetary and infrastructure problems with all services, it makes no sense to transfer this program to them.
Other unique aspects should be mentioned. Based on the early research, these programs were designed as comprehensive child development programs. Thus health, including dental health and nutrition, are basic components along with early childhood education, social services, and parent involvement.
The recent attempts by the Bush administration to define Head Start as a literacy program denies the seamlessness of all aspects of the child's early development. The most compelling scientific evidence for the comprehensive approach has been outlined by the National Academy of Sciences in its publication ''From Neurons to Neighborhoods.''
After 38 years of Head Start, what have been the results?
The American people should be proud that 20 million children have graduated from the program. These children have been better fed and nourished, have been properly immunized, have received appropriate medical care, have had visual and hearing assessment and treatment so that they arrive at school ready to learn; and they are less likely to need special education or to repeat a grade, representing a significant savings to the community.
Head Start graduates have lower delinquency rates and go on to higher education more frequently than nongraduates.
The stories of individual achievement are abundant. Head Start graduates who are now young adults have become teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, and many other occupations. They are giving back to the community.
Rather than transferring the program to the states, we should be thinking about extending the program to all poor children.
Currently, only three of five eligible 3- to 5-year-olds are enrolled. The early Head Start program for those from 6 months old to 3 years old was begun in recent years but covers only about 3 percent of eligible children.
While there are critics who think that Head Start should produce better results, they are a minority. While the program could always be better, Head Start has a strong history of continuous improvements.
Enhancing the quality of the program surely makes sense as a next step provided that the Bush administration and Congress increase funding to support this goal. But the American people should not be deterred from their commitment to insuring that poor children have better health, education, and nutrition.
They should extend their longstanding compact with the 2,000 communities that sponsor Head Start programs, which serve more than 900,000 children each year.
Julius B. Richmond is John D. MacArthur Professor of Health Policy emeritus and Judith Palfrey is T. Berry Brazelton Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
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