Oversight of Local Head Start Programs Flawed, GAO Says

By Michelle R. Davis — March 22, 2005 2 min read

A Government Accountability Office report released last week says that financial oversight of Head Start programs is inherently flawed, opening the door to mismanagement of the local affiliates of the federal preschool program.

The March 18 report details ways in which federal supervision of local Head Start programs is lacking.

The report, “Head Start: Comprehensive Approach to Identifying and Addressing Risks Could Help Prevent Grantee Financial Management Weakness,” is available from the GAO.

“Unresolved financial-management weaknesses among Head Start grantees can reduce the quality or amount of services that are provided to children or result in a grantee’s services being discontinued,” the report said.

The study by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, was requested in late 2003 by House and Senate education committee leaders following headline-grabbing stories about some local Head Start directors who were receiving six-figure salaries or spending program money on expensive travel and fancy cars.

“There are some bad apples in the Head Start program, and they have been defended by the lobbying community at the expense of many good ones,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in a statement.

But advocates for local Head Start employees said the GAO report itself was flawed, making mismanagement appear to be more widespread than it is.

Sarah Greene, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association, which represents 14,000 Head Start families and staff members, said in a statement that the report relied on “twisted data” supplied by the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the agency that oversees the Head Start program.

“HHS is trying to kill Head Start as it exists today, so they fed GAO the worst possible and quite misleading take on the numbers,” Ms. Greene said. The association has feuded with the Bush administration over actual or proposed changes to the program.

Ms. Greene said the report lumps minor, “parking ticket” offenses into the same category as more serious findings.

“Very few had serious problems, and it is misleading to lump an instance of a page missing from a report with a serious problem, such as alleged misuse of funds,” she said in the statement.

Changes on the Way

The GAO report primarily deals with the cracks in the oversight system of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, which monitors the nearly 1,700 Head Start programs nationwide. Last year, those programs received $6.8 billion in federal funding.

The GAO recommends that the ACF develop plans to collect data on and estimate the extent of improper payments grantees made. The report says the federal agency needs to improve the process it uses to collect and analyze information about financial mismanagement among Head Start grantees. In particular, it says, those who review and collect the data should be trained to perform those duties uniformly from program to program.

The GAO found that even grantees that were found to be out of compliance with financial rules in a 2000 review were still out of compliance in a 2003 review.

In a response, the ACF said it has updated many of its procedures as recommended by the GAO and has plans to put others in place.

“We’ve been working to increase our ability to effectively oversee all aspects of local Head Start programs,” said Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department.

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