Fine words in 1965 - an era of post-war optimism. But even after years of strife, President Nixon himself said, “So crucial is the matter of early growth that we must make a national commitment to providing all American children an opportunity for healthful and stimulating development during the first five years at life...I pledge myself to that commitment.”
Later, President Reagan continued this strong support by commenting on the strength of Head Start parents, volunteers, and community partners, acknowledging that their collective efforts “have been instrumental in creating a quality program that truly provides young children with a ‘head start’ in life.”
President George H.W. Bush proposed a substantial increase in Head Start’s budget, with the visionary goal of enabling the program to serve up to 70% of the eligible four year olds (today it can only serve 30%). And President Clinton understood that “one of the greatest commitments we can make is to provide children with the head start they need from day one.”
Even our most recent former President, President George W. Bush, was at the helm of a landmark reauthorization of the Head Start program, modernizing the accountability and transparency of Head Start to fit today’s universal push to ensure high quality among all child development and education programs.
It is because of its longstanding, community-based commitment to excellence that Head Start has continued to thrive under every U.S. president since its inception. Just this week, President Obama sent another, very clear message about the critical importance of offering our most vulnerable children and their families access to quality early education, health and support services. By maintaining Head Start/Early Head Start funding in his FY2013 budget, the President underscored the need to embrace the window of opportunity from birth through age five.
All early learning experts agree the first five years of life represent a critical period of growth and development. It is a time when walking, talking, self-esteem, character, and moral foundations are established. By age five children’s patterns for learning, interacting with others, and understanding their world are set. Quality early childhood education programs like Head Start/Early Head Start harness learning possibilities by approaching young minds with a comprehensive range of tools designed to foster strong social, emotional and physical growth.
The president’s continued investment in Head Start/Early Head Start will also yield enormous dividends for society. Head Start graduates finish school; work hard and get into college; stay free of crime and pregnancy; and stay employed. In fact, the cumulative, lifelong benefits show that Head Start/Early Head Start is a smart and effective investment. Study after study has demonstrated that for every dollar spent on Head Start/Early Head Start, society earns back—in the most conservative estimates—at least $7 through increased earnings, employment, and family stability; and decreased welfare dependency, crime costs, grade repetition, and special education.
While we certainly celebrate the tremendous strides in Head Start/Early Head Start delivery and outcomes, the number of children languishing on waiting lists is escalating as more and more families slip below the poverty line. Today, one in six Americans are living in poverty, including more than 25 percent of children under age six. Sadly, increasing poverty is widening the achievement gap Head Start was designed to close.
Fortunately, the legacy of leaders who built our modern nation set the course for current and future leaders to strengthen opportunities for every American. The opportunity to succeed in life is a core American principle, and Head Start provides that opportunity to our most vulnerable children.
Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association (www.nhsa.org), is a seasoned leader in the early education and child advocacy community in the US and internationally.
The National Head Start Association is a not-for-profit organization that believes that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life if given the opportunity that Head Start offers children and their families. It represents more than 1 million children, 200,000 staff and 2,600 Head Start programs in the United States.