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Jule Sugarman dies: Head Start founder was 83

By Emma Brown
Emma Brown

Jule Sugarman, a public administrator whose skill at navigating the federal bureaucracy made him a key figure in founding Head Start, an early education program meant to prepare poor children to succeed in school, died of cancer Nov. 2 at his home in Seattle. He was 83.

A behind-the-scenes liberal stalwart, Mr. Sugarman had a distinguished career as an administrator in New York City, Atlanta and Washington, where he served under President Jimmy Carter as vice chairman of the Civil Service Commission and deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management.

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He was perhaps best known as an architect of Head Start, conceived in early 1965 as a way to close the achievement gap between low-income and middle-class children. In a matter of mere months, the program went from a scrap of an idea to a $96 million federal program serving more than half a million kids.

Today, it is an $8 billion program serving more than 900,000 children across the country. Its long-term effectiveness is a matter of ongoing debate, and the quality of its classrooms across the country are uneven, but the program maintains its grand ambition of using education to fundamentally reshape the lives of poor children.

"It would have never gotten off the ground, I do not think, without Sugarman," said Yale University psychology professor Edward Zigler, who helped plan Head Start in the 1960s, ran it in the 1970s and has written several books about its history. Though Mr. Sugarman was not a specialist in child development, "he was smart," Zigler said, "and he was a magnificent administrator."

The program, which offers training for parents and medical care for children in addition to standard preschool fare, was designed by a host of pediatricians, educators and psychologists. It was shepherded by the president's wife, Lady Bird Johnson, who served as the project's honorary chairwoman and chief cheerleader among the political classes.

But it was Mr. Sugarman who dealt with the all-important, ever-mundane job of chopping through red tape to turn vision into reality.

As secretary of Head Start's planning commission, he had organized the meetings that resulted in an outline of the new program. He developed a streamlined grant application process to push money out the door quickly, and he recruited hundreds of volunteers to help the country's poorest districts apply. He went on to run Head Start's daily operations for its first five years.

Mr. Sugarman admired the ideals of Johnson's Great Society programs but favored expediency over perfection. When Shriver prepared Head Start's first budget, he gave Mr. Sugarman an hour to figure out the program's per-child cost.

"So another fellow and I sat down over a ham sandwich at the Madison Hotel," Mr. Sugarman once said, "and arrived at $180 per child for an eight-week program."

That figure was low enough to be embraced by Congress, but educators said it was far too little to pay for a quality program. The episode came to symbolize the sacrifices bureaucrats made in order to get the program off the ground.

Mr. Sugarman went on to serve as an administrator in New York City, Atlanta and Washington State, where he was secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services. He also served under Jimmy Carter as vice-chairman of the Civil Service Commission and deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management.

The full obituary has been posted.

By Emma Brown  | November 4, 2010; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Emma Brown, Washington DC-area people  
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