Do Programs for the Poor Become Poor Programs?

 

Most Americans agree that achieving better educational outcomes is one of the key ingredients to providing better opportunities for moving up the economic ladder.  As one way to accomplish this, more and more attention is being given to early childhood education.  The preeminent early childhood program in the U.S. is Head Start, which was begun in the 1960s as part of LBJ’s war on poverty.  But a 2012 federal evaluation of Head Start showed that children who have participated in Head Start have been no more successful in elementary school than those who haven’t.
In today’s New York Times, UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp addresses this problem, “The Benefits of Mixing Rich and Poor”.  Mr. Kirp reminds us that only low-income children are eligible to participate in Head Start.  He then goes on to describe several pre-K programs around the country which serve kids from both low-income and middle class families together.  These programs achieve much better success for low-income kids without sacrificing the interests of the well-off kids.
CaptureA similar phenomenon has been observed in the Learning Community of Omaha Nebraska.  The LC is a six year old experiment created by the State to close the achievement gap between children from low income and middle class families.  The Open Enrollment facet of the LC enables low income kids to receive free transportation to transfer to other schools within the 11 individual school districts which comprise the LC.  The above chart shows that resident FRL (free and reduced price lunch) students in low poverty schools perform substantially better than resident FRL students in high poverty schools.  In other words, low-income students benefit academically from associating with middle class students.
The question is how to design efficient public policy around this widely noted and common sense observation.  It would be too expensive, in today’s tight budget climate, to provide universal pre-K education for all three and four year olds in the U.S.  But the Rosemount Center, in Washington D.C., one of the pre-K programs described by Mr. Kirp., admits children from middle class families on a paying basis.
This could become an affordable and effective national model for providing pre-K education for rich and poor together!

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