How Perry Saved Head Start

If not for the Perry Preschool, the Head Start program might not exist today.

Edward Zigler, one of Head Start's founders, tells the story in his memoir "Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Educational Experiment."

It was the fall of 1980.

"The election of President Reagan was widely regarded as the death knell for many federally funded programs for children," writes Zigler.

Among members of the defeated Carter administration "the atmosphere of a prolonged wake prevailed." And, to make things even more depressing, White House staff had no money left for travel.

So one official literally passed a hat to collect money for a woman named Peggy Pizzo to buy a plane ticket. Pizzo had helped develop the Carter administration's last proposal for a Head Start budget increase and she was scheduled to attend the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) conference in San Francisco.

"To get free meals, Pizzo decided to hit every reception," writes Zigler.

At one of these receptions, she ran into Perry researcher Larry Schweinhart. They got to talking. Pizzo said she heard there was some new data on the Perry children. Schweinhart said yes, but he was having a hard time getting anyone interested in it. The Perry researchers had just released data about the impact of the preschool program on children through age 15.

So Pizzo offered to help.

She made some calls to people she knew at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. She told them this was big news. She recommended that researchers tie the Perry Preschool findings to Head Start.

"If the research had implications for Head Start funding, reporters would be interested," writes Zigler.

So Carnegie agreed to hold a press conference in New York.

"By mid-December, there were editorials all over the country about the benefits of 'Head Start-like' programs," writes Zigler.

Officials in Washington took note.

And on the day after President Reagan's inauguration, a departing Carter aide "placed a call to a telephone extension he knew in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)," according to Zigler.

Since no secretary had yet been hired to answer the phones, a top budget official in the new Reagan administration picked up the call himself.

"I know you'll be cutting a lot of programs," the Carter aide said, according to Zigler. "But to avoid bad press, you'll need to save a few, and let me tell you about Head Start: everybody likes it."

A week later at a White House Cabinet meeting, Head Start was placed in what became known as the "safety net" of social programs that would not be cut.

And Head Start survived.

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