False start

The creator of Head Start is baffled by Bush's debate pledge that he would effectively abolish the country's most successful vehicle for early childhood education.

By Bruce Shapiro
October 4, 2000 1:32PM (UTC)
main article image

Over his breakfast Wednesday morning, Edward Zigler was in a rage. Zigler, a Yale psychology professor and a legendary scholar of child development, was burning over two sentences delivered in the presidential debate Tuesday night by George W. Bush:

"Here's the role of the federal government: One is to change Head Start into a reading program. Two is to say that if you want to access reading money, you can do so because the goal is for every single child to learn to read."

"I was stunned," said Zigler. "Doesn't the governor know a single thing about Head Start or about literacy? Head Start is today, and has been for 35 years, about preparing children to read and be successful students."


Zigler should know. A scholar of education for 45 years, he was on the White House committee that in 1964 created Head Start for low-income preschoolers -- beginning with a model program a short distance from Zigler's office in New Haven, Conn., during the years when both Bush and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman were Yale students.

Backed up by decades of studies attesting to Head Start's singular effectiveness, Zigler has spent the past generation alternately goading politicians in both parties to support the perpetually underfunded child development project and Head Start itself to do a better job.

Bush's pledge to "reform" Head Start -- which now serves over 800,000 children and their families per year -- was one of the most revealing comments by either candidate in Tuesday's debate. Although education is generally assumed to be the Texas governor's strong suit, showcasing his policy acuity and the compassionate side of his conservatism, Bush's caricature of Head Start suggests otherwise.


Bush would basically abolish the program as we know it. His proposal implies that the present-day Head Start is nothing but a "big-government social program" divorced from real education. In fact, Head Start is not one but thousands of community-based, early childhood programs combining preschool and the social support needed to create strong elementary school pupils. Said Zigler: "The governor seemed to have no sense that health and nutrition are connected to reading ability, that the very strength of Head Start as a predictor of school success lies in its comprehensive nature."

Indeed, students' "readiness to learn" was reaffirmed as the primary goal of Head Start when its funding was last reauthorized -- by Newt Gingrich's 1998 Republican Congress.

Bush's promise of a top-down federal reworking of Head Start also runs against Republican dedication to local control: His proposal amounts to federal micromanagement of Head Start programs that traditionally are community run, with a heavy dose of local parent involvement.


"That sense of ownership is desperately important to families, and is one reason Head Start has persisted," Zigler said, "but there was no understanding of that in the comments by Governor Bush."

So what was Bush, the purported education candidate, up to Tuesday night? Was it simply to look "tough on education" the way Bill Clinton tried to look tough on crime? Perhaps. But his attack on Head Start also represented a coded genuflection to the party's more extreme social conservatives, whose influence on his campaign has remained in the shadows since the Philadelphia convention.


For one thing, the Republican right has for years gone gunning for Head Start as a symbol of liberal social engineering. The administration of candidate Bush's father slashed what was supposed to be a five-year, full-time Head Start program to one year of half-days -- on paper radically expanding the numbers of children, but in fact precipitating a decline in Head Start quality so severe that by the beginning of the Clinton administration, Zigler himself was warning that 30 percent of Head Starts around the country were failing.

Indeed, one of Donna Shalala's first acts as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services -- and one of the Clinton administration's more notable successes -- was to turn this crisis around. Under Clinton, Head Start funding has more than doubled, to $4.66 billion. And Shalala isn't just throwing money at problems. She has shut down 150 Head Start agencies around the country that failed to meet quality standards, and salvaged 200 others that were in crisis.

Conservative hostility to Head Start is only part of the story, though. There is also the politics of literacy: In recent years, educational conservatives have also coalesced around the call to return literacy education to the old "phonics" method, instead of so-called "whole language" techniques embraced in many classroom since the 1960s. (Some conservatives just like phonics because it seems traditional, but more extreme conservatives also see whole language as a vehicle for cultural relativism.)


Bush and his wife, Laura, have leaped onto the phonics bandwagon, and seem to intend to make Head Start their phonetic-reform vehicle. This, too, comes in for some harsh judgment from Zigler, who has studied literacy education for decades: "Governor Bush seems unaware of numerous studies comparing whole language and phonics, which show that one curriculum is no better than the other."

Whether Bush's motivation is a sincere belief in the value of phonics, or he is simply pandering to the right, the governor Tuesday night declared war on the nation's most successful vehicle for early-childhood education. Head Start has survived the Great Society of the 1960s just as Social Security survived the New Deal, and for the same reason: It works.

"I'd like to ask the governor what he thinks produces literacy in childhood," said Zigler. If Bush follows his plan, the Head Start creator cautioned, "everything that makes Head Start a success would be lost."

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

MORE FROM Bruce Shapiro

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Education George W. Bush Republican Party