President Barack Obama flew to swing-state Pennsylvania on Tuesday to declare that Republican intransigence in Congress has prompted him to implement a reform of the Head Start program.
But he’s actually implementing a modest children’s education reform signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush in 2007.
The event “is a photo-op for the implementation of a law that has already passed,” said John Hood, director of the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina.
The event in Philadelphia combined an Air Force One visit, a presidential speech, children and ranks of television cameras.
“The Republicans in Washington are trying to gut our investments in education. … We can’t wait to give our youngest children the same basic opportunities we give all children,” he told the assembled cameras and reporters.
White House officials billed the campaign event as another opportunity to highlight the 2012 campaign’s ‘We Can’t Wait” theme. That theme seeks to portray the president as actively helping Americans while partisan, self-interested Republicans block beneficial government action.
The Bush-signed reform is titled the “Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act.” The reform law was unanimously approved by the Senate and overwhelmingly supported by the House of Representatives 381 to 36, before it was signed by Bush in December 2007.
The reform sought to improve the effectiveness of the troubled Head Start early education program for roughly one million poor preschool kids. The program has long been criticized by advocates of small government, who cite studies that show its tiny boost to young kids is subsequently dissipated in elementary schools.
“The advantages children gained during their Head Start and age four years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole,” concluded a Health and Human Services study of almost 5,000 kids. The study, released by the Obama administration in January 2010, is titled the “Head Start Impact Study.”
The federal government has spent more than $100 billion on the program since 1965, without visible benefits, according to the Heritage Foundation.
The 2007 reform, Hood said, won’t have much impact.
“The major problem is most of the [kids] come from single-parent families, most of them have significant experience with poverty and drug abuse. … Thinking you’re going to inoculate them against these social maladies by spending a little time in Head Start centers is poppycock,” he said. Small-scale programs that use skilled staff to aid a small number of disadvantaged kids might help, but the programs are likely to work best if they evolve from state-level experiments, Hood added.
The Head Start program is strongly supported by university-trained experts, government-funded teachers and Democratic politicians, despite decades of failure, he said. “People are capable of incredible self-deception, and university-trained and intelligent people are probably the most self-deceived. … They convince themselves that a little bit more money would do the job,” he said.
The 2007 reform encourages the federal government to assess each Head Start grantee, and to exclude grantees that fall below expectations.
“Under the new law, [The Department of Health and Human Services] will have more flexibility to open competition for Head Start grants to other prospective grantees when current grantees fail to deliver high-quality, comprehensive Head Start programs,” said a February 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office.
The report was a follow-up to an earlier GAO report into the effectiveness of the Head Start programs, which then had 1,600 local organizations that received nearly $7 billion in grants.
The reform has been underway for more than three years, and the first changes to grant holders may be announced next month.