At the heart of the U.S. government shutdown there is a philosophical debate over whether government programs for the poor help pull people out of poverty or make people more dependent on government handouts. Some conservatives see the curtailing of a pre-school program for low income families, though, not as a crisis, but as an opportunity.
The federally-funded Head Start program provides meals, medical screenings and preschool training for more than one million children from low-income families.
Because of the government shutdown, though, some of those programs have have been cut or closed.
Child care advocate Helen Blank, with the National Women’s Law Center, said the shutdown is hurting a program that strives to help those most in need.
“We know that research is clear that these experiences make a tremendous difference in low-income children’s ability to do well in school and to succeed in life. So it absolutely makes no sense to take our poorest four-year-olds and put them on the curb,” said Blank.
But conservative education analyst Lindsey Burke, with The Heritage Foundation, said Head Start's benefits are overstated, and that the shutdown presents an opportunity to reform what she called a bloated and bureaucratic program that costs taxpayers about $8,000 per child, per year.
“I think after 48 years of Head Start really being a failed federal intervention in early childhood education, that we have a lot of evidence that says, 'You know, what? Maybe instead of funding these Head Start centers, we should fund the child instead,'” said Burke.
Burke pointed to how private donors John and Laura Arnold recently contributed $10 million to Head Start, and how some state governments moved to fill in funding gaps to illustrate that there are better and maybe more affordable ways to fund these programs.
“Why not allow states to make their Head Start dollars portable - basically following a low-income child to any preschool provider of choice whether that is public or private - basically giving parents control over the Head Start dollars that we spend, but not necessarily relegating these children to government Head Start centers.”
But Head Start proponents say a government shutdown is not the way to reform the system.
“There are lots of ways to debate how to strengthen Head Start. There are lots of ways to debate how to strengthen schools. We don’t shut our schools down and say 'put our children on the street, that’s really good for children,'” said Blank.
If the shutdown continues into November, more Head Start programs serving thousands of children will lose federal money.