During his 2013 State of the Union address, among the many plans he laid out for improving America, Obama managed to frame a very controversial topic in very neutral, accessible terms: He declared that his administration would “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” Sounds pretty great, right? Almost everyone would have a hard time arguing with rhetoric like that.

Even without his catchy speech style, there isn’t much ideological controversy in Obama’s premise; after all, who would be opposed to giving children better opportunities to succeed in education? Yet Obama’s proposal has caused a debate, but it’s not a debate over the merits of the American dream of high-quality education for three-year-olds everywhere. Instead, people are all riled up over how Obama’s proposed plan will be executed.

A version of this utopian vision of preschool education already exists. It’s called the Head Start program, established in 1965, and has provided comprehensive educational and parent involvement services to nearly 30 million low-income preschool-age children and their families throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. In 2007, it extended its services to homeless children. However, a study published in 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services has raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of the program.

The study reflected some positive effects of the program: children who had received preschool education from Head Start “manifested less hyperactive behaviors and more positive relationships with parents” than their peers, they tested significantly better on vocabulary and oral comprehension, and parents of children in the program were more likely to read to them and involve them in cultural enrichment. However, the study also showed that although “the program had a ‘positive impact’ on children’s experiences through the preschool years, ‘advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.’” After first grade, Head Start did not seem to have any significant overall social–emotional impact on its students.

The results of the study have brought strong anti–Head Start sentiments into public forums. Many argue against continuing a program that, at $7.6 billion a year, they say is much too ineffective for its price tag. Another concern is that the way in which the program is implemented simply does not yield the results that are expected of it.

The president wants to expand Head Start as well as have the federal government work with states directly to provide high-quality education to children in low- and moderate-income families. The question is not whether or not an Extended Head Start program should be implemented, but rather how it will be implemented. The best that education reform advocates—and people who believe in equal opportunities for everyone—can hope for is that Obama’s administration will work to solve the major problems existing in Head Start’s system and will build a preschool program that provides even more disadvantaged children with better education.

Further Reading
“Can Obama Sell Universal Preschool to the GOP?” The Atlantic Wire, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/02/obama-universal-preschool-gop/62156/.

“Head Start Impact: Department of Health and Human Services Report,” Journalist’s Resource, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/civil-rights/head-start-study/.

“In Alabama, a Model for Obama’s Push to Expand Preschool,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/education/details-emerge-on-obamas-call-to-extend-preschool.html.