Research & Commentary: Early Childhood Education

Published January 26, 2012

In November 2011, President Barack Obama restructured Head Start funding to require competitive grants for the least effective providers, to forestall congressional Republicans seeking to limit or repeal the program. Republicans cited the need for federal budget cuts given the nation’s 90-percent-of-GDP national debt and the program’s long history of demonstrated ineffectiveness.

Head Start, a federal preschool program for low-income children, receives $9 billion in federal funds yearly. Department of Education statistical evaluations of the program repeatedly have concluded program participants receive no positive academic or behavioral effects beyond a minor bump in reading in first grade. Studies of state-level preschool programs have reached almost identical conclusions.

Proponents of introducing and expanding government-sponsored preschool programs highlight the importance of early childhood education for poor and minority students who are less likely to receive the acculturation and structure necessary for future academic success. For children whose homes are such poor learning environments, proponents argue it’s better to give children richer options guided by learned professionals.

Small-government proponents and family advocates note the research on government-funded solutions is mixed at best and indicates a vast amount of wasted time and taxpayer money at worst. Noting family stability and concern for education are the most important indicators of children’s future success in education and life, they say government would do better to increase incentives for families to care about their children’s education and make life choices likely to promote their child’s wellbeing.

The following documents offer further information about government-funded preschool.


Obama will Mandate Head Start Competition
Low-performing Head Start federal preschool providers must compete for funds under a new Obama administration regulation, reports USA Today. As many as one-third of current contractors must submit grant proposals to continue receiving federal funds, beginning in December 2011. The administration decided to change the rules without approval from Congress, as Republican lawmakers looked to cut the program they call widely ineffective and wasteful.

Preschool’s Failures
The evidence from state-led preschool programs shows little to no long-term academic effects on the children, writes Lisa Snell for the Reason Foundation. States including Louisiana, Michigan, and Massachusetts have boosted state spending on government-funded preschool programs despite their poor track record in other states such as Ohio, Oklahoma, and Georgia.

We Have a Parenting Problem, Not a Poverty Problem
The most critical difference causing the achievement gap between rich and poor children is not money but parenting, writes Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation in National Review Online. “Turbo-charged government programs” cannot compensate for divorce, teen pregnancy, TV babysitting, and other behaviors that undermine children’s learning habits and foundation, he writes. This is a strong argument for school choice, he says, because that arrangement fosters charter and religious schools likely to teach no-nonsense social messages.

Academic Success Begins at Home: How Children Can Succeed in School
Stable families are essential to students’ academic success, especially in a child’s early years, concludes Christine Kim in a report for The Heritage Foundation. Research has shown for years that increasing spending does not correlate with better academic outcomes; it has instead shown a strong relationship between parental influences and children’s academic outcomes. The two most important family factors influencing education are family structure (whether parents are married and biologically related to the children in their home) and parents’ involvement in their children’s schoolwork.

Let’s Diversify Our Preschool Portfolio
Oklahoma has the largest state pre-K program in the nation, and its spending on the program has soared while outcomes have declined, writes Wendy Warcholik in a policy study for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Oklahoma students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are among the worst in the nation. Warcholik notes children whose mothers are more educated and stay home with them when they are young do measurably better than others in school, and argues the state should redirect some of its preschool dollars to families through education tax credits or taxpayer savings grants to make it easier for one parent to stay home full-time and customize their children’s education.

Head Start Earns an F: No Lasting Impact for Children by First Grade
The benefits of participating in Head Start almost completely disappear by first grade, concludes the only study of the program using a rigorous design, note David Mulhausen and Dan Lips of The Heritage Foundation. Consequently, Congress should reconsider its $9 billion in annual spending on the program and $25 billion in annual spending on early childhood education before creating any new programs. Since 1965, when the program began, the federal government has spent more than $170 billion on this ineffective program, the researchers note.

Head Start Program: Fraudulent and Ineffective
Directly after a Health and Human Services review found Head Start has no impact on student learning or behavior, the Government Accountability Office discovered providers in six states and DC actively enrolling ineligible children in the program, writes David Mulhausen in a policy report for The Heritage Foundation. This type of fraud wastes taxpayer dollars and compounds the fraud the program already perpetrates on children by doing nothing to improve their mental skills or emotional well-being. In fact, he notes, participating in Head Start actually reduced math skills for three-year-olds.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].