Head Start founder Edward Zigler, the Sterling Professor of Psychology, has been working on American educational issues for more than four decades, but he is convinced that there is more work ahead.

“Childcare,” Zigler said, “has been a disaster.”

Addressing a crowd of about 40 undergraduates and New Haven educators yesterday, Zigler spoke about the necessity and challenges of instituting universal preschool education. The speech kicked off a semester-long Dwight Hall sponsored series of discussions on education.

“Intersections: Theories and Practices of Civic Engagement,” plans to bring experts on school funding, vouchers, standardized testing and other areas of education to Yale over the next few months. In a wide-ranging lecture, Zigler charted the history of Head Start as well as attempts to offer all children the opportunity to attend preschool.

Emily Cardy ’04, a political science major who worked on educational policy for a congressman last summer, reacted positively to Zigler’s message.

“[He is] fabulous, such a great figure in education,” Cardy said.

Zigler was an education expert in the Nixon administration, has been a frequent witness before Congress, and has published hundreds of educational studies. But he is perhaps most famous for founding Head Start, which provides free child care to families that fall below the poverty line and has been a widely acknowledged success in preparing economically disadvantaged children for kindergarten.

Zigler stressed the importance of early childhood education, saying that it is a “basic piece to any kind of successful school reform.” Countless studies have shown this assertion to be true, Zigler said, adding that educators strongly support such proposals. Zigler said the need for universal preschool is obvious, as 35 percent of children are not adequately prepared when they enter kindergarten, a figure that can be as high as 60 percent in New Haven, he said.

Because of funding restraints, however, only 50 percent of eligible children are actually enrolled in the program nationwide, Zigler said. He cited these statistics to argue that there is a clear need to expand Head Start and move toward universal preschool education. Only two states have such programs, New York and Georgia.

Zigler predicted that Head Start will take a significant hit next year due to the recession, increased spending for homeland security, and President Bush’s tax cut in 2001.

“The major challenge is always money,” said Abel Padro, a Head Start educator in New Haven who attended the lecture.

In addressing this challenge, Zigler spoke about the politics of education reform. In trying to get the program funded 37 years ago, he faced harsh opposition from the evangelical right, who Zigler said wanted “to keep women in the home.”

But Zigler has maintained funding for Head Start ever since, and said he is optimistic about enacting universal pre-school education. He said this issue gained a spot on the national agenda during the 2000 Presidential campaign when Al Gore endorsed such a platform, but added that he sees support for his proposal as bipartisan. A current bill in the Senate favoring universal pre-school is being sponsored by the liberal Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and the conservative Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

As for the possibility of achieving universal preschool, Cardy said there is “hope in our generation.”

Zigler also was optimistic about universal preschool becoming a reality, saying that “it makes too much sense not to.”

Despite the massive hurdles that education advocates will have to face in instituting universal preschool, Zigler left the Dwight Hall attendees with a call to action: “Roll up your sleeves and get with it.”