Believe it or not, politicians in Washington can work together in a bipartisan way to get good things done.
Sure, we just had the longest government shutdown ever. And a repeat might be in our future. But, as The New York Times detailed in a front-page article, in the background of the polarizing turmoil, there is an unsung bipartisan success story in Head Start, the federal early education program that has been helping preschool children from low-income families for more than a half-century.
Like Medicaid and food stamps, Head Start dates to the 1960s War on Poverty. But unlike those programs, Head Start has long had support from both Republicans and Democrats. That’s partly because it’s smaller and less expensive. Also, as the Times pointed out, it benefits young children, and no one blames them for needing help.
Head Start tries to prepare children who might otherwise be behind when they start school. The idea is that a strong foundation in early childhood will give them a better chance at academic success later.
Unlike many federal programs, Head Start never added another layer of bureaucracy and politics by involving state government. The federal Department of Health and Human Services gives money to run Head Start programs directly to local groups, such as nonprofits and school systems.
Despite its reputation as a poverty program that works, Head Start did falter for a time. Some groups that ran local programs grew complacent. Standards slipped. Many programs continued to be good, but some had serious shortcomings. Eventually, there were rumblings for reform. Democrats blocked a Republican attempt to give some control to states.
Then, in 2007, Congress passed a bipartisan bill to beef up oversight. The federal government would continue to be in control, but there would be regular monitoring of quality in local programs. If a local Head Start ranked in the lowest 10 percent on a standardized measure, the group that ran it would have to compete to keep its grant. The measuring tool focuses on instructional support, emotional support and classroom organization, and each local program gets a “report card.” The system evaluates the teachers, not the children, because it’s difficult to test preschool children.
More than 10 years after the reform, a third of local partner agencies have had to compete to keep their funding. Some have been replaced. The quality and education level of teachers has gone up. And the “report cards” are improving.
There are criticisms, of course, and it’s possible that the standards occasionally can be arbitrary or followed too rigidly. Overall, though, the new approach is working. We still don’t know how long the “head start” children in the program are given lasts, how much it affects test scores and graduation rates years later. It’s tough to measure when there are so many variables. But study after study suggests that those formative years are crucial, and giving children an early boost is a good bet.
May this ray of bipartisan progress stay strong.