An undercover investigation into the federal government's Head Start program has found enough enrollment abuses to generate a report to President Obama and a major damage-control effort by the agency that runs the program.
At a hearing Tuesday, members of the House Education and Labor Committee heard dramatic audio clips of fraud being taken by Government Accountability Office (GAO) agents. In one clip, a New Jersey Head Start worker handed back a $23,000 pay stub to two agents who were pretending to enroll their children in the preschool program.
"Now you see it, now you don't," the Head Start worker said.
The worker's decision to ignore the $23,000 in income meant that the agents' fictitious children, who otherwise would not have counted as "poor" under government rules, were enrolled in the program, possibly to the detriment of needy children who would have been put on a waiting list.
Fraudulent enrollment is "a blatant violation of Head Start's rules. … Our administration will not stand for it," Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a letter Monday to Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, California Democrat.
Mr. Obama "has been briefed on GAO's investigation," she noted in her letter.
In testimony presented to the House panel Tuesday, GAO special investigations official Gregory D. Kutz said that in at least eight cases, Head Start employees "manipulated" information to admit ineligible children.
Enrollment rules were so lax, he warned, that Head Start workers could easily "doctor" enrollment applications, and families could enter the program with "bogus" documents created at home.
Out of 15 visits, there was no evidence of enrollment fraud in seven places, including two in Washington, D.C., and one in Maryland, Mr. Kutz said in his testimony.
But in Wisconsin, one Head Start worker looked at the incomes of two agents posing as a grandpa and a grandma, and "picked" one of the incomes to report.
"Who won … Grandma or me?" the agent asked on the audiotape.
"Grandma … because she had the lower income," the worker said, laughing.
Other abuses included admitting a family who lived outside the Head Start service area, ignoring proof of employment, and admitting extraordinarily high numbers of "homeless" children. Under new rules, homeless children are automatically eligible for Head Start.
The audio clips are available at the GAO web site, www.gao.gov, listed under "reports and testimonies" for May 18.
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.