The following paper is a policy analysis of the federal program Head Start. I will use reports published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center (ECLKC), and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) to ground my examination of the legislation regarding this program. Additionally, several social frameworks, as well as policy effectiveness, will be employed to complete this policy analysis.
The benefit-allocation framework is an analytic model, promoted by Gilbert and Terrell, that measures social welfare policies by examining who the policy benefits, what said benefits are, and how said benefits are financed. In basic terms, these are defined as social allocations; the benefit-allocation framework, it follows, measures these social allocations to assess social policies. Specific to the Head Start program, children in low-income families (and arguably the family as an entity) are the target population for benefits. The benefits provided are comprehensive early childhood development services. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “The program seeks to promote school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social, and other services”. However, Head Start is not a universal or always accessible program. This program is a selective one, meaning that only some that apply are accepted. As a result, we can see that simply being eligible for Head Start is not correlated to actually being benefitted by Head Start.
Head Start funds are managed through the federal Department of Health and Human Services and are given directly local grantees. The federal government, according to this CRS report (2014), uses taxpayer money to grant funding the local programs. By providing program funds directly to local locations rather than states, we can assume that basic accessibility issues, such as simply existing in needed areas, are well managed. Some of this taxpayer money also goes to staffing regional oversight offices. The staffs in these locations work on the quality of services being provided to the children and families enrolled in the program. Some of the ways this is done include improving the skills teachers need in order to adequately reach program goals, improving management systems and learning environments, and implementing programs that help the guardians of the enrolled children continue the work being completed at school.
Social, Economic, Environmental Justice Analysis/Human Rights Framework
A key part to analyzing the Head Start program in terms of the human rights framework are through the distributive justice mechanisms of adequacy, equity, and equality. Adequacy is providing a decent standard of well-being. Thinking of this in terms of specific facets of the human rights framework – social and economic justice – we can see that this standard is being valued to some degree by this program as one of its main goals is minimizing the gap between affluent and disadvantaged children in similar or the same communities. Gilbert and Terrell also state that on top of simply providing a social service, public assistance programs must also provide financial assistance to the needy (2009). This economic justice component of distributive justice via adequacy is present in the values and goals of the Head Start program.
Gilbert and Terrell also use the concept of equality to measure if a social policy is valuing the human rights framework. Here, equality is explained as benefits being allocated, “…so as to equalize the distribution of resources and opportunities” (2009). We know that now everyone is eligible for Head Start is benefited from the program. This dynamic would not fall in line with Gilbert and Terrell’s thinking of equality. Nevertheless, having regional oversight offices centralizes the services therefore guaranteeing uniformity of benefits across services. This does guarantee equality of benefits from location to location. Furthermore, I think it is important to note Gilbert and Terrell’s notion of equal opportunity in the case of Head Start. The two recognize that this value is not always at utmost value in public assistance programs. Rather, a modified version of equality adopted – equal opportunity. The notion of equal opportunity is described as the presence of opportunity-oriented practices. Although Head Start may not have equality predominately displayed in its practices, I do believe that this modified notion of it is present; there is the same treatment of similar persons and an equal share of benefits given to those enrolled. In this sense, an egalitarian sense of distributive justice is indeed promoted by the Head Start program.
The notion of equity is also measured in this framework. Simply put, Gilbert and Terrell explain this as following the conventional idea of fair treatment (2009). With this, one’s deservedness of a benefit should be based on their societal contributions – if you do X amount of the work then you deserve the correlative amount of the benefit versus if you cannot do all of the work then you deserve none of the benefit. Head Start, as stated above, works with low-income children and families to provide quality early child education to those who cannot afford it through traditional means. Acknowledging that the traditional way of gaining early childhood education, school readiness and the others things the Head Start program provide are often the result of some sort of cash payments, Head Start is challenging the notion that those who cannot pay the total deserve none of the benefit. Oppositely, the program is using this notion of equity to provide these things to families who may not be able to pay the sum for these traditional means but are still deserving of the outcomes.
On the opposite side of equality assurance from centralized services, we can note that specific locations of Head Start are less likely to be tailored to the specific needs of the community, or communities, it serves. With this in mind, we can argue that goals like school readiness have the potential of being undermined by socioeconomic factors present elsewhere in the child’s life. An article from CLASP (2018) reviews several studies on Head Start in which children were followed after their time in the Head Start program through their next schooling. Overwhelmingly, it was found that the children that were in Head Start were outperforming their peers in the time immediately following the end of the program. Yet, the impact study then found that these same cognitive gains disappeared as elementary schooling continued. Matthews hypothesizes a key potential explanation for this phenomenon that does not include the ineffectiveness of Head Start itself: the uneven quality of elementary schools disadvantaged children attend after Head Start (2018). Lee et al came to a similar conclusion in their review of longitudinal Head Start study. The same positive, early cognitive abilities that Matthew discussed were also present in this study when compared to their counterparts in elementary school. However, the longitudinal study goes on to find lower reading and math scores among children who were in Head Start as their elementary schooling continued. Interestingly, Lee et al found little to no difference in outcomes between children in Head Start whose guardians had moderate to higher levels of education and those who were always engaged in traditional early education (2014).
Armed with all of this information, I am inclined to say that Head Start itself is likely to be an effective program in successfully reaching its goals. Still, though, Head Start cannot combat the societal realities of the institutional inequality seen within the communities it serves.