President Bush's visit to a Catonsville Head Start program yesterday underlined that there is political mileage in embracing children's issues.
Few children's programs are easier for politicians to endorse than Head Start, which has compiled an impressive track record. The president used his visit to make the welcome announcement that he will request an additional $600 million in Head Start funding for the next fiscal year. If Congress goes along, that would mark the largest one-year increase in the program's 27-year history.
Even better news for disadvantaged children is that Republicans and Democrats are turning support for the program into a bidding war. Congressional Democrats are proposing a $1 billion increase in Head Start. For once, rather than arguing about what should be done -- or quibbling about the merits of a particular approach -- the two parties are in agreement on the larger question.
And no wonder. Comparisons of low-income children show that, by age 19, those who participated in pre-school programs similar to Head Start are less likely to be school drop-outs, welfare recipients or engage in criminal behavior. In dollars and cents, two years of participation in Head Start produces $4.75 in benefits for each $1 invested.
The White House says that President Bush's initiative would allow Head Start programs to serve 157,206 more children, and the president maintains that it would allow every eligible 4-year-old to participate. But it's important that Head Start politics not become a numbers game.
As popular as the program is, it is not without its problems. During the 1980s, spending for Head Start did not increase enough to keep up with inflation. One result was an erosion in quality-control efforts. Spending on supervision and monitoring, salaries and staff training and development suffered grievously. Many Head Start workers still earn wages that fall below the poverty line, and many local programs subsist on inadequate staffing levels. No matter how popular and effective Head Start has been, programs starved of important resources cannot continue to fulfill their mission effectively.
Rather than focusing on the number of children served, it is important for policy-makers in both political parties to recognize that quality carries a price tag. The two parties agree that Head Start is a worthy way to spend taxpayers' money. Surely they can also agree that the money should pay for quality pre-school education, not just quantity.