- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

Hundreds of Head Start preschool programs have financial irregularities, a government watchdog agency says in calling for tougher oversight of the 40-year-old anti-poverty program.

Between 2000 and 2003, 838 Head Start grantees were found to have one or more errors in the way they managed their program, finances or bookkeeping, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released today.

“The next time those grantees were reviewed, 440 — or 53 percent — were cited again for problems in those same areas,” the GAO report said.

These findings, plus other evidence of mismanagement, show that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) “has not implemented a well-integrated monitoring system to oversee the Head Start program, including its financial management,” the GAO said. Without change, the report added, “ACF will be unable to ascertain how widespread the problems are.”

Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for ACF, said in a statement in the report that his agency would “take the necessary steps” to improve its collection and assessment of Head Start data.

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the GAO report confirms that the $7 billion Head Start program has “serious problems.”

“We need to support the many honest [Head Start] grantees and shut down the bad ones,” said Mr. Boehner, whose committee plans to release a compilation of press reports in 17 cities that show millions of dollars in Head Start funds have been diverted, squandered, embezzled, awarded to insiders and spent on excessive salaries.

Mr. Boehner’s office also said a Senate-House hearing on the GAO report is planned for April 5.

Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), which represents the 1,700 Head Start grantees, said the GAO report is “fatally flawed” because it uses “twisted” data from ACF.

Some Head Start grantees might have had minor “parking-ticket” violations in 2000, but “very few had serious problems,” she said. Moreover, a Head Start report to Congress in 2000 showed that “roughly nine in 10 programs were found to have no major fiscal management issues of any kind.”

The federal Head Start program is up for a five-year renewal, and the Bush administration and its allies in Congress want to set up a system to give selected state leaders a role in overseeing its programs. NHSA has rejected such reforms, saying they would “dismantle” the program.

The GAO report faulted ACF for allowing data discrepancies in enrollment, income eligibility and teacher education, and not independently verifying information from grantees.

GAO researchers also noted that ACF didn’t try hard enough to replace “poorly performing” grantees, and even gave a New Mexico program a new $2 million grant while it was being investigated for defrauding the program of $526,000.

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