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Reviewing Hillary Clinton’s Role in the Creation of Early Head Start

By Andrew Ujifusa & Christina A. Samuels — August 17, 2016 7 min read
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K-12 education may have been largely neglected throughout this presidential campaign, but Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump both decided to spend a bit of time talking about child care issues last week. That gives us an opportunity to examine one of Clinton’s statements about her involvement in early-childhood issues: that as first lady, she helped create Early Head Start.

That statement is part of her campaign’s broader strategy to emphasize her work on various childhood issues throughout her adult life—a strategy that was on display during the Democratic National Convention last month.

Early Head Start was created as part of the reauthorization of the Head Start Act in 1994, during President Bill Clinton’s first term. The program provides child-development supports and other services to low-income families with infants and todders from birth to age 3, as well as pregnant mothers. Among other goals, Early Head Start aims “to provide safe and developmentally enriching caregiving which promotes the physical, cognitive, social and emotional development of infants and toddlers, and prepares them for future growth and development.”

It provides full-day, full-year programs through home-based services and child care centers. In the fiscal 2016 budget, Early Head Start got a $135 million funding increase, as part of an overall $570 million boost to the broader Head Start program that brought total Head Start funding for this budget year to $9.2 billion.

‘Helped to Create’

Last week, Clinton derided Trump’s child care proposal, which would create a tax write-off for child care costs up to a certain point and eliminate a federal tax credit. The former Secretary of State said it stood to benefit wealthy families, not those who are struggling.

Clinton has also made doubling funding for Early Head Start a part of her platform on early childhood education.

But what has Clinton said about her involvement in Early Head Start?

“Let’s double our investment in programs I helped develop as first lady: Early Head Start and the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program. These programs bring an evidence-based curriculum to child care and make sure kids get the best possible start in life, no matter how much money their families have,” Clinton said in a Washington Post op-ed published in May.

She also characterized her role the same way during her last bid for the presidency.

For example, Clinton told the LAist news website during the 2008 Democratic primary season that, “I will quadruple Early Head Start, which I helped to create when I was First Lady, and increase Head Start funding to $8 billion by 2010.” And she made a similar claim in response to a questionnaire given to her by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2008.

While Early Head Start was formed in the 1990s, the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership Grants are a product of the Obama administration. Those partnerships mark a new connection between the federal program and community-based day care providers, which can receive federal money in return for meeting Early Head Start’s stringent quality standards.

A Supportive Environment

So what went into the creation of Early Head Start, and what role did Clinton actually play?

Before the reauthorization bill that created the program was introduced early in 1994, the Advisory Committee on Head Start Quality and Expansion was formed specifically to guide a Head Start expansion planned by President Clinton. Late in 1993, it released a draft set of recommendations that included calling for a pilot program for children from birth to age three in Head Start. (You can read the panel’s final recommendations here.)

The 45-member panel recommended upgrading Head Start facilities, improving oversight, and other changes. At the time, reporter Deborah L. Cohen of Education Week wrote, “The panel also urges joint training of Head Start and school personnel and training for parents in how to work with the schools. It also cites the need for better local, state, and federal coordination in early-childhood programs and for links between Head Start and special education, family-literacy programs, health and welfare reform, and national service.”

Hillary Clinton was not on that advisory committee, although it’s probably not fair to assume she would have been. In fact, Doug Besharov, a University of Maryland public policy professor who served on it, said he’d be “really surprised if there was a politician within 50 miles” of those committees. When asked about Clinton’s involvement or lack thereof, Besharov didn’t specify any direct involvement by Hillary Clinton on the committee he belonged to, although he added, “The administration did organize those committees.”

Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning for the National Women’s Law Center, has spent her professional career deeply involved in early-childhood issues. She served on the same Head Start advisory committee as Besharov.

Blank remembers the Clinton White House as being receptive to issues related to young children, and said it’s fair for Clinton to say she helped create the program.

Hillary Clinton “had a history of being supportive of infants and toddlers and very young children,” Blank said. “The Clinton administration was very supportive of children’s issues. There was strong interest in infants and toddlers, and it made a lot of sense to build a program for infants and children from Head Start, because Head Start was comprehensive.” (At the time they were on the committees, Besharov was at the American Enterprise Institute, while Blank worked at the Children’s Defense Fund. As a young attorney, Clinton was on the staff of the Children’s Defense Fund, and she later served as board chairwoman.)

In a review of the Education Week archives, we found no coverage indicating that Clinton worked closely with committee members on the nuts and bolts of what would become Early Head Start.

Administration’s Influence

It’s well known that Hillary Clinton was heavily involved in policymaking as first lady, particularly so when it involved policies that impact children and families.

To name one example, she was involved in the creation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program back in the mid-1990s. In her 2008 campaign, Clinton made similar claims about helping to create SCHIP, statements that said were backed up by the facts, although the Boston Globe previously wrote that she “had little to do with crafting the landmark legislation or ushering it through Congress.” Earlier this year, NPR reviewed Clinton’s claims about bringing a child care program to Arkansas called the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters that originated in Israel. NPR concluded that Clinton did bring the HIPPY program to the Natural State but wasn’t the first to do so for the U.S., and misstated the number of states where HIPPY operates.

In 1993, Education Week published an extensive article about Clinton’s influence on policy and political matters both before and during her time as first lady. She was credited with helping Donna Shalala become the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, the agency that oversees Head Start.

When the bipartisan Head Start reauthorization bill was introduced in 1994 containing Early Head Start’s creation, Education Week reporters described it as a proposal from the Clinton administration. The bill was introduced by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., among others.

Then there’s the oft-cited tidbit that she kept office space in the White House’s policy shop. In fact, we noted concerns back in 1993 that, “Mrs. Clinton will prove to be a powerful player who is unreachable through traditional advocacy.”

Her role at that time has also created disputes about the extent she should be the target of criticism of Clinton administration policies later deemed politically challenging for her own White House bids, although that dynamic is less evident when it comes to her role in child care policy in the 1990s.

Influential, But No Paper Trail

We also talked to Jennifer Klein, who was Clinton’s domestic policy adviser from 1993 to 1999 and is now a volunteer and senior adviser for women’s issues on the Clinton campaign. Klein had two main points.

Klein conceded Early Head Start is a “particularly bad example” for those looking to prove Clinton’s direct involvement in shaping policy through documents and official records. “It was very much a behind-the-scenes role,” she said.

And although Clinton was a notable player in the program’s creation, Klein said, “I wouldn’t say it was her idea and it wouldn’t have happened without her.”

But Klein said she is confident that Clinton’s claims in her 2008 and current presidential campaigns are true. She said Clinton was particularly helpful when it came to advising top Health and Human Services officials about the details of what became Early Head Start.

“She was a driving force for Early Head Start,” Klein said.

There are parallels, Klein added, between Clinton’s work on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and her work on Early Head Start.

“Do I feel confident saying that she helped create Early Head Start? Absolutely,” Klein said.

Clinton, accompanied by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, speaks in Pittsburgh last month. (Andrew Harnik/AP File)

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Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.