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Federal Agencies Cooperating More on Early Learning, GAO Report Finds

A report issued this month by the Government Accountability Office finds that the departments of Education and Health and Human Services are working better together to avoid duplication when it comes to providing federal early-learning and child-care programs for children 5 and under. 

Last fall, we reported on one example of these agencies cooperating to better serve homeless students and their families.

The GAO report praised such efforts but didn't offer any new recommendations. Instead, the report provided an overview of programs and found nine with the explicit purpose of providing or supporting early learning and child care and 35 somehow related to those goals.

Those nine are administered by the departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Interior. Of those nine, the bulk of the funding, $15 million in fiscal year 2015, went to Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund. (The GAO report did not specifically mention how the Interior Department is going about working with other agencies.)

A GAO report from 2012 found that some of these programs duplicated services, were administered by multiple federal agencies in what the GAO called fragmentation, or faced overlap, which is when different programs target similar beneficiaries. Although things have improved, the recent report mentions that these conditions have not been eliminated.

Response to the Report

The Department of Health and Human Services responded to a draft of the most recent GAO report by noting that President Donald Trump's budget further reduces overlap and duplication of services through his proposals to eliminate three programs that support early-childhood learning and child care, while eliminating or reducing funding for several other programs for which funds can be used for those purposes.

The GAO report stresses that while some programs target similar groups, they have different goals and administrative structures. For example, some programs provide child care for low-income parents who are pursuing higher education, while others provide child care so low-income parents are able to work. 

Still, the sheer number of programs has led some in Congress to criticize the federal government's involvement in early learning.

Earlier this month when the author of the report addressed the House education's committee's panel that oversees early-childhood education, some committee members expressed those concerns.

But Aaron Loewenberg with New America, a public policy think tank, believes that those concerns may be overblown. In an analysis of the report and the response to it, he said that "while many members of the House subcommittee lamented the fact that certain federal programs overlap, in a November 2016 joint report to Congress, HHS and the Department of Education point out that 'purposeful overlap' of programs can be necessary to meet the unique needs of children and families who might require more than one type of service."


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