- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The $7 billion federal Head Start preschool program for poor children could use local oversight to curb waste, fraud and abuse, city officials told two congressional hearings yesterday.

In Las Vegas, the Head Start program is being investigated for a $300,000 deficit.

“With the right accountability in place, the mismanagement of the funds could have been avoided,” Pamela Henry, former chairwoman of the Head Start Policy Council in Las Vegas, told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “However, those involved were never held responsible for the [misuse] of such funds,” said Mrs. Henry, who is also a Head Start parent.

In Shelby County, Tenn., a $90,000 Head Start playground is “missing” and only one of three planned — and funded — Head Start centers has been built, Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “The hoops we had to go through [to expose the fraud] were unbelievable,” said Mr. Wharton, a former trial lawyer.

Yvonne Gates, county commissioner in Clark County, Nev., and Jim Caccamo, director of the Metropolitan Council on Early Learning in Kansas City, Mo., also told the Senate panel about their Head Start scandals.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that Health and Human Services (HHS) reviewers found one or more violations in 838, or 76 percent, of Head Start programs they reviewed in 2000. When these programs were reviewed again, 440, or 53 percent, still were out of compliance, GAO official Marnie Shaul told the congressional panels.

Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, told the panels about several remedies his agency has planned or put into place to detect fraud, waste and abuse. Congress, he said, could help by giving HHS more oversight authority, including the authority to move more quickly to defund poorly performing Head Start grant recipients and resubmit the contracts for bids.

Olivia Golden, who held Mr. Horn’s post in the Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, recommended higher financial standards and training for Head Start grantees and reviewers.

The 40-year-old Head Start program, in which federal funds flow to local grantees, bypassing state officials, is up for reauthorization. The Bush administration wants Congress to grant a few states the authority to coordinate Head Start programs with their other preschool programs. However, the National Head Start Association (NHSA), which represents 1,700 Head Start grantees, says such an experiment would dismantle the program.

The NHSA also has challenged the GAO report, saying that many of the violations were “parking tickets” such as having unraked leaves in a playground or bread crumbs in a toaster.

“Obviously, this is not about promoting accountability or ferreting out real problems. It is about trashing as many Head Start programs as possible,” said Ron Herndon, chairman of the NHSA board of directors.

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