While a recent federal study found that academic benefits of Head Start faded after children entered elementary school, other long-term studies have found lasting benefits.

With the sequester cutting millions of dollars in Head Start funding, which Education Department officials say will eliminate some 70,000 students from the program, and with President Obama calling for an expansion of preschool education, these developments have revived long-standing arguments over just how valuable Head Start is.

The idea behind the federal Head Start program is that offering free, high-quality preschool education to millions of children living in poverty will give those children a chance to start kindergarten on par with their more fortunate middle- and upper-class peers.

The name also implies that once children get a “head start” they’ll stay ahead, or at least keep up with children with access to books, summer camps, trips to museums, and the other basics of middle-class child rearing.

But a recently published federal government study finds that isn’t true, and that academically at least, Head Start students fade back into the middle of the pack in the first few years of elementary school.

A long-term study published in December by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that by the end of third grade, there were “very few impacts” evident in the students who had attended Head Start compared with those who did not.

The December publication updated an earlier report issued in 2010 that found the same pattern occurring by first grade for former Head Start students.

Both reports have been used as ammunition by critics of Head Start, such as the conservative Cato Institute.

Other scholars and advocates of preschool education, as well as a top San Joaquin County Head Start official, say the study misses the mark. They say the study did find huge benefits to children’s emotional well-being, health, and cognitive development. What’s more, they say the poor outcomes for children after entering elementary school show what’s wrong with the elementary schools rather than with Head Start.

(Next page: More evidence in support of Head Start)