- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Between 7 percent and 57 percent of Head Start centers have empty slots, owing to competition from other child care programs, too-small facilities and a shrinking number of eligible poor children, says a federal watchdog agency.

Federal rules for Head Start require that the $6.7 billion program have full — 100 percent — enrollment, and last year there were 912,000 low-income children enrolled in 2,500 Head Start centers.

However, there are persistent reports that many Head Start centers are “underenrolled,” Democrat Reps. George Miller and Adam B. Schiff of California and Dale E. Kildee of Michigan told the General Accounting Office (GAO). Mr. Miller, ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, asked the GAO how many Head Start centers have empty slots and why.

In its Dec. 4 response, the GAO said accurate underenrollment numbers aren’t available because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “does not collect national data and does not monitor underenrollment in a uniform or timely manner.”

Instead, the GAO found a variety of enrollment measures — by one standard, for instance, 57 percent of Head Start centers were underenrolled in 2001-2002; by another standard, only 7 percent were underenrolled.

HHS should improve these data-collection systems, the GAO said. Dara Corrigan, acting principal deputy inspector-general for HHS, said in the report that HHS “fully supports” the recommendations.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Kildee said in a joint statement Friday that “HHS needs to change their policies” on data collection.

In addition, they said, the GAO found that many Head Start centers are struggling to switch to full-day services. “Instead of dismantling Head Start as the House Republicans are trying to do, a better approach is to make sure that all Head Start programs are full-day so they better meet the developmental needs of children and the employment needs of families,” the House Democrats said.

The GAO report found several reasons for why at least 170 Head Start centers were “unacceptably underenrolled”:

cThere is a smaller pool of eligible children to draw from, the result of declining child poverty rates and fewer families on welfare.

• More low-income parents are working full days and need full-day care for their children; however, 44 percent of Head Start centers still offer only half-day programs. The GAO said that many Head Start leaders said they wanted to switch to full-day programs, but lacked the facilities and staff to do so.

• There has been steady growth in child care options for low-income children, increasing competition for Head Start. Education Week recently estimated that more than 750,000 children ages 3 and 4 are served each year in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs. This is “coming close” to the number of children served by Head Start, HHS said in a report released last week on state-funded early-education programs.

Head Start legislation is awaiting reauthorization. The House passed its bill this summer, but a Senate Finance Committee bill has not yet been debated by the full Senate.

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