Anne Chadwick Williams/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Anne Chadwick Williams/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Due to the government shutdown, roughly two dozen federally funded Head Start day care centers will temporarily close their doors this week.

For those low-income parents in affected areas expecting to send their toddlers to Head Start this week, the closures will no doubt create some headaches. But all of this might have been avoided if policymakers had been willing in previous years to undertake the reforms the program so desperately needs:

  • Head Start is ineffective. The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start, revealed in December 2012 that the nearly $8 billion Head Start program has little to no impact on the cognitive, social-emotional, health, or parenting skills of participants.
  • Head Start is expensive. Since 1965, taxpayers have spent more than $180 billion on Head Start.
  • Head Start centers have engaged in fraudulent activity. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found several Head Start centers in several states actively counseling families to underreport their income in order to appear eligible for services.
  • Providing day care is far beyond the purview of the federal government. Providing day care is just not something the federal government was designed to do or should be doing. The diverse delivery system of private preschool options is a better means of meeting the needs of American families, and it includes low-cost providers such as church-based and home-based care. Moreover, most states offer taxpayer-funded public preschool programs. While states should exercise caution when creating state preschool programs, Americans should find the concept of day care financed by the federal government particularly objectionable.

Public preschool at any level of government increases costs for taxpayers by encouraging more participation in public programs, undermining private providers, and thereby reducing American families’ preschool choices. But the problems plaguing Head Start are particularly acute.

After nearly 50 years of operation, the federal Head Start program has failed to improve the educational outcomes and kindergarten readiness of participating children. Head Start should be eliminated or, at the very least, reformed to allow states the flexibility to make their Head Start funds portable, allowing families to use their dollars to send their children to private preschools of their choice.

The federal government shutdown is just one more reason policymakers shouldn’t make low-income parents dependent on distant government programs such as Head Start, which is subject to ongoing political fights in Washington. There’s a better way to meet the early education needs of children from low-income families.