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A fair shot at a head start

On a warm spring day 50 years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson stood in the White House Rose Garden and announced the launch of Head Start, an initiative that would serve as a cornerstone of America’s War on Poverty.

This week, as Head Start marks its 50th birthday, the popular program has served 32 million Americans, who went on to achieve what at first must not have seemed achievable: they became doctors, lawyers, mayors, Grammy-winning musicians, poets, professors – and even members of Congress.

{mosads}But even as Head Start proponents celebrate a birthday, they worry about what is to come. A GOP budget proposal pending in Congress would cull 46,000 children from Head Start’s ranks. That’s 46,000 children who wouldn’t get a fair shot at a good start in life because of misguided priorities.

When Head Start was first introduced in 1965, the idea of providing comprehensive health, nutrition and education services to children in poverty was revolutionary, if not radical. Through the years, the program has been modified and refined, always responding to evidence-based practices and fitted to meet the needs of local communities.

The whole point of the program is to erase the serious socioeconomic deficiencies many of our children face. For example, children who are hungry or malnourished can’t learn as well as other children. And everyone knows that children who don’t learn early in life are more likely to fail when it comes to attending college, getting a good job and becoming contributing members of society – and thus the downward cycle continues.

Indeed, even putting aside the needs of children, there is an economic argument for not cutting Head Start. Research has found that there is a $7 to $9 “return on investment” for Head Start – meaning that for every dollar we spend on the enrichment program, our economy gets $7 to $9 back. Consider this one fact alone: Head Start graduates are 12 percent less likely to be arrested or charged with a crime.

Other research has found that recipients of early childhood education are four times more likely to earn a college degree; more likely to be consistently employed; and less likely to have used public assistance programs. Head Start is a win, win, win for taxpayers.

Fortunately, the GOP’s voice on Head Start is not the only voice in our nation’s capitol. Democrats in both the House and Senate as well as President Obama have proposed broad investments, not cuts, in early childhood education, including Head Start. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama noted the importance of early education to middle-class families.

“Most middle-class families can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool,” the president said. “And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

The truth is, education shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and historically, it hasn’t been. There is no Republican way to teach children how to read and there is no Democrat way to teach kids how to add and subtract. There is no Blue State way to teach geography and no Red State way to teach Social Studies. As we commemorate Head Start’s 50th birthday, leaders from both parties should come together to support this great American tradition.

Elliot is communications director for Fair Share, a national grassroots organizing group that is working to build an America where everyone does, pays and gets their fair share; and where everyone plays by the same rules.


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