Investing in children

January 22, 1992

President Bush chose the Emily Harris Head Start Center in Catonsville yesterday to announce his latest Head Start initiative, a proposed $600 million increase in the program's funding for Fiscal Year 1993. The visit was a classic "photo op," the kind of setting politicians love in an election year. But the president is not alone in recognizing that children's issues strike a responsive chord with many voters. Democrats are also eager to do more than just kiss babies on the campaign trail.

The proposed increase would be the largest yearly rise in Head Start's history, but congressional Democrats, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, are seeking an even heftier increase of $1 billion for 1993. President Bush says his proposal will make it possible to serve all eligible four-year-olds, but the reauthorization of the program in 1990 cited a wider target, aiming to serve all eligible three-year-olds, as well as eligible five-year-olds who are not already enrolled in public kindergarten.

That goal remains unmet. Children's advocates point out the earlier intervention and education takes place, the better the results. That's undoubtedly true, but until adequate funds are available for that much expansion, fans of Head Start can take pleasure in watching politicians compete to show their support for this popular program.

Since 1965, Head Start programs have effectively demonstrated the benefits of a well-designed, comprehensive child development program. Head Start children get far more than just early exposure to a classroom. The program's health care component provides benefits other low-income children often lack -- medical and dental screening and treatment that can prove to be a critical factor in a child's later success in school. Virtually all Head Start children are up-to-date on immunizations, an advantage many American children now lack.

Head Start participants are also more likely to enjoy the support and encouragement of a parent. For every five children enrolled in a Head Start program, four parents volunteer services to the program. Many parents find that Head Start gives them a boost as well; about one-third of Head Start employees are parents of current or former participants. When parents take an interest in their children's education, everybody wins. By many measures, then, Head Start is a good investment -- and the fact that politicians are now trying to outbid each other in supporting it is reason to cheer.

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