Conservatives Are the Big Roadblock to Improving Head Start

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 2:19 PM EDT

Robert Gordon and Sara Mead say that Head Start is better than a lot of its critics give it credit for:

But this much is true: Head Start could do better....Evaluations suggest that strong state preschool programs sustain gains in reading, math, or both in ways that Head Start doesn’t. There’s no reason to think Head Start can’t produce similar results. In fact, some individual Head Start programs already do: Kids in them achieve vocabulary gains more than twice the Head Start average. But it will require some changes.

Some of the program’s defenders may bristle at such talk, for fear that any questioning of Head Start’s effectiveness will reinforce the arguments of [Paul] Ryan and those eager to downsize or even eliminate the program. But now is the time to talk about improving Head Start. Replicating results from the best Head Start programs would be a big boost for our nation’s poorest youngsters, enabling many more of them to start school much better prepared.

This is the eternal problem. There are plenty of liberals who would like nothing more than to make Head Start—and pre-K programs in general—better than they are today. In fact, if there's any group which should be most concerned about making sure that taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently and that social programs show real results, it's liberals.

So why is there often so much resistance to improvement? Obviously inertia is part of it. Most of us tend to get a little lazy once we find a comfort zone. But there's a more substantive reason too: As Gordon and Mead say, defenders of social welfare programs know that acknowledging problems won't lead to kumbaya sessions with conservatives where we all agree on improvements. It merely gives conservatives fodder for arguments to cut spending on the poor.

This sounds simpleminded and uncharitable. So be it. But the plain truth is that there are vanishingly few conservatives who are genuinely dedicated to improving social welfare programs. They just want to cut taxes and cut spending. Sometimes this is out in the open. Sometimes it gets hidden in the language of "block grants." Sometimes it's buried even further in spending caps that obviously starve domestic programs without admitting that any particular program will ever get cut. But one way or another, it's there.

So what's the answer? I wish I knew. But as long as conservatives remain dedicated to using problems with social programs as nothing more than convenient excuses to get the Fox News outrage machine rolling, progress is going to be hard to come by.