Four years after data collection was completed, Americans are still awaiting the results of a study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the impact of the federal Head Start program. “The United States fought and won in the Pacific and Atlantic fronts of World War II in less time,” writes Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum. Lukas goes on to say:

Imagine the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] was conducting a clinical trial about a medication that nearly one million toddlers use every day. Families have been using the drug since the 1960s, but experts are unsure of its real effects. Congress finally mandated an evaluation in 1998.

But four years after data collection for the clinical trials was completed, the FDA still won’t publish the results. Many suspect that their stonewalling has something to do with powerful pharmaceutical companies that will be embarrassed if the results are disappointing.

American parents would be outraged—protesting outside of the FDA, demanding answers. Investigative journalists would be probing for results and looking for whistleblowers to give the public the facts.

Unfortunately, we have heard no such outrage, or seen no such digging, to date, demanding answers from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about the four-year delay in the final results of the Congressionally-mandated evaluation of the federal Head Start program, which impacts millions of American children.

HHS only recently (January 2010) released the results of the National Head Start Impact Study, which followed three- and four-year-old Head Start children through first grade. The rigorous experimental-design evaluation compared Head Start children to Head Start–eligible children who did not participate in the program and found that Head Start failed to have a positive impact on cognitive abilities for both the three-year-old and four-year-old groups. Worse still, access to Head Start actually had a negative impact on the teacher-assessed math ability of the three-year-old cohort.

These unimpressive findings are the results for the children after first grade. The congressionally mandated evaluation was extended in 2006 to determine the effects of Head Start after third grade in order to assess the long-term impact of the program. Data collection for the third-grade follow-up study was finished in 2008, and yet the results have remained sealed off somewhere inside HHS.

Head Start, which was created in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, is now a $7 billion annual program enrolling more than 900,000 low-income children across the country. Over its lifetime, taxpayers have dumped more than $168 billion into Head Start. This big-government preschool program has failed at its one stated mission: to increase kindergarten readiness. And in all likelihood, the results of the third-grade follow-up study will be even less inspiring than those of the first grade evaluation.

Parents and taxpayers deserve to know whether Head Start works. Senators Tom Coburn (R–OK), Mike Enzi (R–WY), Lamar Alexander (R–TN), Richard Burr (R–NC), and John McCain (R–AZ), agree and have just sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting that the results from the study be released:

We understand that data collection for the “Third Grade Follow-Up” study was completed in the spring of 2008. Four years seems to be a sufficient period of time for the Department and the researchers that conducted the data collection to analyze the results.… The American people—including the families of the estimated 904,000 children currently enrolled—deserve to understand how the program is affecting the children it serves.

If the third-grade follow-up study shows the same dismal results for Head Start as the first-grade study found, serious consideration should be given to the future of this Great Society relic. Policymakers interested in improving outcomes for poor children should not relegate them to underperforming Head Start centers.

Massive federal preschool programs are not the way to ensure children’s educational future. Investing in preschool programs should be a decision made by states and localities—and, even better, by parents. One way federal policy could move in that direction is to make Head Start funding portable to allow low-income children to attend any preschool provider of choice.

Perhaps HHS is waiting to release the study with great fanfare and will be able to tout impressive results from Head Start. But we’re not holding our breath. Parents and taxpayers deserve answers, and the Senators’ inquiry is a first step toward obtaining long-overdue information about this massive taxpayer-funded preschool program.