Over 1,000 Safety Violations Mar Head Start. Children Deserve Better.

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Would you send your child to a day care facility that left him unattended on a bus for so long that he developed frostbite?

You may not believe it, but the federal government funds a child care program that a recent inspector general report found to have more than 1,000 documented incidents in which children were abused, left unsupervised, or released to an unauthorized person.

Created in 1965 during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the federally funded Head Start program provides preschool care to children from low-income families. Organizations apply for Head Start spending grants, which awardees use to operate preschool centers. Today, taxpayers spend approximately $11 billion annually on these centers.

But Head Start has major problems. This report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General shows that approximately 1 in 4 grant recipients had incidents in which children were abused, left unsupervised, or released to an unauthorized person between October 2015 and May 2020.

The most frequent type of incident, documented 533 times in the report, involved children being left alone. In 358 incidents, children were left unattended on the grounds of a Head Start facility; in 95 incidents, children were left alone outside a facility (such as in a parking lot or on a nearby street); and in 80 incidents, children were left alone on a bus.

In one example, the report says, a physician found evidence of frostbite on a child’s foot after a contracted bus driver left the child “unattended on the bus for an undetermined period of time during very cold weather.”

The inspector general’s report also found 454 incidents of abuse, including verbal and physical abuse. For example, parents reported of one Head Start teacher and an assistant: “[They were] calling the children demeaning nicknames, including chancho—pig, in Spanish—and mustache girl. … [C]hildren described a stick that was used to scare and hit them. The children expressed fear of the staff returning.”

If the details and frequency of such incidents weren’t horrifying enough, the inspector general’s report also indicates that many Head Start grant recipients failed to promptly report these cases. The report identifies 130 incidents in two states that weren’t reported.

Research by The Heritage Foundation has found similar problems in the federally funded program. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

Head Start has faced multiple occurrences of financial fraud and child abuse over many decades. And those who attend Head Start do no better in school than similar children who do not, which means Head Start has little or no long-term academic value for children.

When Congress returns to Capitol Hill, conservative leaders should sunset this program and return spending to families and taxpayers. If Head Start spending is to continue, lawmakers should follow what Grover Whitehurst, an assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, has said of Head Start: “Give the money to parents in the form of vouchers and let them shop for the care providers they prefer.”

Providing parents with more flexibility in using Head Start funds has far greater potential to serve families better. In states such as Arizona, Florida, and West Virginia, parents of school-age children may choose how and where their children learn. But why should these options be available only to students in K-12?

Parents want the best for their young children and shouldn’t be relegated to distant—sometimes unsafe—federal Head Start programs. Families shouldn’t have to wait around for the unlikely prospect that Head Start reforms itself from within.

Instead, eligible families should have access to safe and effective early education and care, with Head Start dollars following them to offset costs.

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