In the Arena

Obama’s Head Start Reform

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A few months ago, I wrote a controversial column about the Head Start pre-school program, in which I cited the Department of Health and Human Services’ own study that showed Head Start wasn’t making much of a difference. I quoted an Obama Administration official acknowledging the problem, especially in the Head Start programs run by community action agencies, rather than local school systems, including colleges. Today, the President acknowledged the problem and announced some new rules to make Head Start more accountable:

Now, under the old rules governing Head Start, there just wasn’t enough accountability. If a program wasn’t providing kids with quality services, there was no incentive to improve. Under the new rule, programs are going to be regularly evaluated against a set of clear, high standards. If a program meets these standards — and we believe the majority of Head Start programs will — then their grants will be renewed. But if a program isn’t giving children the support they need to be ready for school, if classrooms are unsafe, if finances aren’t in order, if kids aren’t learning what they need to learn, then other organizations will be able compete for that grant. We’re not just going to put money into programs that don’t work. We will take money and put them into programs that do. (Applause.)

If a group is going to do a better job for the community, then they need that support. If a group would do a better job serving the kids in our communities, then they’re going to have that chance.

Now, this is the first time in history that Head Start programs will be truly held accountable for performance in the classroom, and we know that raising the bar isn’t always an easy thing to do. But it’s the right thing to do. Children in Head Start deserve the best services we have to offer, and we know that Head Start programs can meet this challenge.

This is a very good step in the right direction. But it has to be pursued–and publicized. As the party that believes in government, Democrats have a special responsibility to make sure that federal programs are effective and well managed. This is Job #1 for a Democratic President when it comes to establishing credibility with the public–and yet, recent Democrats (Clinton and Obama) have seen it as Job #2 (getting massive new programs passed, like universal health care, has taken priority). As a result, the notion that government can mess up a one-car parade has gained new traction in recent years. The Republicans have rioted through these vineyards without any effective response from Democrats.

Getting Head Start right is important on several grounds: We really need to have excellent early education programs to give our kids a…Head Start; it will pay off in a big way, over the long term. But it’s also crucial for the President to show that he wants to manage the government and that he hates wasting money, even when its the $7 billion spent each year on an iconic and entrenched program like Head Start.