The pending reauthorization of Head Start this year is causing long-term concerns about the federal preschool program to bubble to the surface, amid an all-out battle between those who want to overhaul the 40-year-old program and those who say that, in most cases, it works well.
Last week, members of both the House and the Senate called for better financial oversight of Head Start, during hearings held to explore the findings of a recent Government Accountability Office report critical of federal supervision of the program. Earlier, House Republicans, who are calling for changes to the program, and the Head Start Association, an advocacy group that represents Head Start parents and teachers, unveiled dueling Web sites providing information on the program.
And the battle is likely to get even messier as the real work of the reauthorization process gets under way.
It was clear from the double dose of hearings on both sides of the U.S. Capitol on April 5 that lawmakers are rethinking several aspects of the nearly $7 billion program, which helps prepare more than 900,000 disadvantaged children for kindergarten each year. The issue of financial mismanagement topped their concerns.
Recently, reports of alleged abuses ranging from excessive salaries for local Head Start directors to embezzlement of federal funds have attracted the attention of lawmakers. On March 18, Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee released a report—with a cover that juxtaposes pictures of wide-eyed toddlers with those of a mansion, a sport utility vehicle, and stacks of $100 bills—summarizing the alleged abuses.
“I don’t know why some of you just didn’t call the cops,” Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., told witnesses, which included a Head Start parent and federal Head Start officials, during the House education committee’s April 5 hearing. “This behavior went way out of bounds. This isn’t about compliance, this is about criminal intent.”
At a hearing before the Senate education committee’s subcommittee on Education and Early Childhood Development earlier the same day, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., went on a self-described “tirade” about financial problems at the KCMC Child Development Corp. in Kansas City, Mo., a local Head Start agency that was once considered a model program. While the educational program there flourished, the director was paid more than $814,000 over three years, and The Kansas City Star reported last week that long-time director Dwayne Crompton used his corporate credit card for many personal expenses including vacations and expensive clothing. An attorney for Mr. Crompton told the newspaper he had repaid some of the charges.
Lack of Oversight?
In both hearings, lawmakers examined the March 18 GAO report, which found flaws in oversight of local grantees and programs by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
Marnie S. Shaul, the director of education, workforce, and income-security issues for the GAO, argued that the ACF must do a better job of assessing risks, improving oversight, and more quickly shutting down or seeking new bids to manage local Head Start programs with problems.
Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., the chairman of the House Education Reform Subcommittee, called the report “damning.”
Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department, said many suggestions have already been implemented, but added that “we have not made the maximum use of the information available to us.”
He cited new ways to “red flag” problems and increased training of federal monitors who inspect Head Start programs.
Mr. Horn said he and the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, disagree about whether the law allows the ACF to wrest a contract away from an existing local grantee and rebid it, even when improprieties have been found. He sought clarification from Congress.
“We’d appreciate some greater flexibility … to protect taxpayer money during the appeals process,” Mr. Horn said. However, he stressed that a majority of Head Start programs operate properly.
Some witnesses suggested that part of the problem is a lack of training for local Head Start oversight boards, including parent-advisory boards, which often oversee multimillion-dollar budgets. A.C. Wharton, the mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., told the Senate panel local governments should also play a part in oversight. Mr. Wharton said he discovered serious financial mismanagement in his local Head Start program, but had difficulty firing the company running the program.
“It was virtually impossible to do anything” once the problems were detected, Mr. Wharton said. “We have programs literally imploding in front us.”
Changes Being Discussed
The concerns may play into a push by Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration to alter the structure of Head Start, in which federal money currently is sent directly to more than 1,600 grantees who operate local programs. Republicans are pushing for a pilot program that would send the money directly to states to then be distributed to local programs. Critics dislike what they see as that “block grant” approach.
The Bush administration is also asking Congress to ease the current law’s requirement that 2 percent of the federal program’s budget must go to training and technical assistance. Mr. Horn said his agency wants leeway to use the money some years to add more children to the program.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said that because most Head Start programs are run successfully, Congress shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
And Olivia Golden, a former ACF assistant secretary during President Clinton’s administration and now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute, said studies have shown that most Head Start programs are of consistently high quality. It’s important to get rid of bad programs, but it’s just as important to nurture successful ones, she said.
“When programs are good, we need to have continuity,” she said.
Outside of the hearing rooms, those ideas are being debated in a public and often emotional way. The House education committee unveiled a Head Start section on its Web site, particularly on financial abuses. The Head Start Association promptly touted its own new site for parents and Head Start graduates to join the effort to “save” the program.