Are Americans really longing for “Head Start-like programs” for their children? So argues Eleanor Clift in a recent article for the Daily Beast.

Clift praises El Centro Rosemount, a preschool center in Washington, D.C., that serves children from affluent families and students in the federal Head Start program.

As the day care center notes, it’s one of the few such centers in the country that cares for students in Head Start along with students from tuition-paying households. Visiting the center and observing the students led Clift to the conclusion that Rosemount “epitomizes the value of early schooling.”

Rosemount, however, might be the exception that proves the rule with Head Start. Proponents showcase centers such as Rosemount—there’s a picture of actress Jennifer Garner participating in an event with the preschool in Rosemount’s development materials—but the vast majority of Head Start participants are relegated to underperforming centers that fail to prepare them adequately for kindergarten.

Despite all of the program’s shortcomings, proponents defend Head Start. “Head Start has endured for 50 years, and enjoys iconic status in America’s safety net,” Clift writes. “Head Start advocates cross party lines and more access to Head Start-like programs for more affluent families is driving the political debate.”

But are “Head Start-like programs” really what middle- and upper-income families are pining for? Here’s what we know about Head Start on the whole:

  • Head Start is ineffective. The Department of Health and Human Services 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.
  • Some Head Start centers have engaged in fraudulent activity. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office found several Head Start centers in several states actively counseling families to underreport their income in order to appear eligible for services.

We can do better for the low-income families currently using Head Start. If the federal government remains in the business of financing Head Start, states should be allowed to make their Head Start dollars portable to follow children to preschool providers of choice. That might be a center like Rosemount, or it might be another private provider, a church-based day care, or any other number of options.

Instead of trying to scale-up the troubled program to make it a universal taxpayer-funded entitlement, at a minimum it should be reformed to better serve the low-income children currently enrolled. Middle- and upper-income families can and should bear the responsibility for financing their own children’s early education and care—not the federal government.