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The GAO also found two Head Start families who reported incomes “in excess of $110,000,” and that 63 children were counted more than once to make centers appear fully enrolled.

This kind of behavior is “reprehensible and completely unacceptable,” Mr. Miller said.

Carmen R. Nazario, HHS assistant secretary for the administration for children and families, told the committee that HHS would take swift action against misbehaving grantees, and was already in the process of upgrading integrity standards, reminding grantees of Head Start rules, and conducting unannounced visits to centers.

The National Head Start Association (NHSA), the trade group for grantees, said it was not privy to the details of the GAO investigation but would “do all we can” to help programs that are out of compliance.

Mr. Kutz said a complete GAO report on Head Start abuses will be issued in July.

Head Start, created 45 years ago as a “war on poverty” program, receives $7 billion a year. Last year, it received an extra $2 billion under the stimulus bill, and the Obama administration has requested another $1 billion for it for 2011.

Head Start’s main purpose is to narrow the school-readiness gap by giving poor preschoolers free educational, medical, nutritional and social services.

Early studies have showed that Head Start services pay off when the children start school.

But in January, a massive, 10-year study found that by the time Head Start children finish first grade, they score no better than non-Head Start children on most of 112 measures.

Head Start proponents have tried to downplay the devastating results, but the program’s critics say they have heard enough happy talk about Head Start.

Mr. Obama has said he is willing to eliminate government programs “shown to be wasteful or ineffective,” Heritage Foundation analysts David Muhlhausen and Dan Lips said after the Head Start Impact Study results were released.

“Given that scientifically rigorous research demonstrates that Head Start is ineffective, Head Start is an ideal candidate for the budget chopping block,” they said.