Writing in the Carolina Journal, John Hood of the John Locke Foundation takes up the story of the overdue report on the national Head Start evaluation:

For decades now, both liberal and not-so-liberal politicians in Washington and Raleigh have clung to the plausible and promising notion that spending tax money early on early childhood education can save money in the long run by boosting high-school graduation rates and reducing rates of future crime, joblessness, and welfare dependency.

The notion is plausible in part because some early laboratory experiments of preschool intervention demonstrated long-term benefits with a few dozen test subjects. And it’s promising because so many other attempts at improving the lives of disadvantaged students – ranging from in-school reforms to various public-assistance programs – have proven to cost more and deliver less than expected.

The political fascination with preschool intervention began in the 1960s with Head Start, then deepened during the past two decades with state-initiated programs such as North Carolina’s own Smart Start in the 1990s and More at Four in the 2000s.

Hood explains that politicians in Washington and Raleigh have been quick to expand preschool programs, but less eager to evaluate whether these programs actually benefit students. In North Carolina, Hood argues,

…the result has been the expenditure of billions of dollars over the past two decades with little evidence of gain. As I’ve noted, the major improvements in North Carolina’s performance on independent reading and math tests predated the statewide implementation of Smart Start and More at Four. After these programs went in effect, the state’s academic performance stalled out.

As for Head Start, Hood kindly highlights the question that Heritage has been raising about the Congressionally-mandated national evaluation that the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to make public.

Since Congress has wanted to know whether Head Start provides lasting benefits since the 1990s (and since taxpayers have spent more than $100 billion on the program since the 1965), don’t taxpayers and parents deserve to know whether this program works? Especially since Congress and the Obama administration are preparing to spend another $8 billion on federal preschool programs.

Federal and state governments are running ballooning budget deficits. It’s high time we start evaluating government programs and determine what’s working and what isn’t.