Head Start should be abolished.
At least, that’s usually the first thing a conservative will say when the federal pre-K program comes up in a policy conversation. That’s also usually where the conversation ends.
This is unfortunate, because the principles and intuitions behind that antipathy are more compelling than many Americans might expect. And, if articulated properly, the conservative critique of Head Start can help push us toward a more promising approach to supporting early education.
Head Start was launched in 1965 as a cornerstone of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program. President Johnson set out to redistribute federal funds to under-resourced school districts serving high concentrations of students in poverty. That basic function is fairly uncontroversial: most Americans agree that poor students shouldn’t be educated with less public money, that there is a role for the federal government to rectify resource gaps, and that the federal government is capable of cutting and mailing checks to the states.
However, most Americans also instinctively understand that while the federal government can financially support education, it’s poorly suited to administer and regulate classrooms. This is why Head Start, both practically and philosophically, falls short.
Fifty years in, the federal government engaged in a comprehensive review and reform effort to....