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Federal Watchdog Finds Risk of Head Start Fraud, Ranking Republican Seeks Hearing

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Federal officials and local program operators have not done enough to prevent fraud in Head Start programs, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a report released Wednesday. 

The watchdog agency's findings prompted Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking member of the House education and labor committee, to call for a hearing on fraud risk in the federally funded program that supports preschool for low-income children.

Head Start, operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, uses federal funds to support local centers around the country with the aim of boosting children's school readiness. The GAO identified concerns at a sampling of local centers, including improper income screening for applicants. And it found that the federal Office for Head Start had not conducted "a comprehensive fraud risk assessment of the program" to identify vulnerabilities "in accordance with leading practices." 

"High-quality early-childhood education plays an important role in the health and success of our nation's children," Foxx wrote in a letter to Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education and labor committee. "As policymakers, we have a responsibility to ensure programs like Head Start are working efficiently and effectively. It's not just taxpayer dollars that are on the line, it's students' futures."  

What the GAO Investigation of Head Start Found

The Head Start program, which receives about $10 billion annually, currently serves about 1 million children through grants to about 1,600 Head Start centers nationwide.

To investigate the practices of local Head Start operators, GAO officials posed as fictitious families and attempted to enroll children in 15 preschool centers in metropolitan areas around the country. "For each test, GAO provided incomplete or potentially disqualifying information during the enrollment process, such as pay stubs that exceeded income requirements," the report says.

What investigators found:

  • Seven of 15 Head Start centers correctly determined the applications did not meet eligibility requirements.
  • At three Head Start centers, staff encouraged investigators "fictitious families" to attend without following all requirements to verify eligibility
  • At three other centers, investigators found their "applications had been doctored to exclude income information GAO provided, which would have shown the fictitious family to be over-income."
  • In the remaining two cases, Head Start center staff "dismissed eligibility documentation GAO's fictitious family offered during the enrollment interview."

The federal Head Start office is sometimes slow to monitor and resolve fraud risks among grantees, the report says. That's despite new processes that were adopting after previous GAO reports that identified fraud risks.

"Vulnerabilities exist for ensuring grantees provide services to all children and pregnant women they are funded to serve," the report says.

For example, federal officials had not instructed grantees that a child's Head Start slot "should be considered vacant after 30 days of consecutive absences," which means some programs may be collecting funds for children who are absent for extended periods of time or holding a seat that could be taken by another child.

The report recommends that the federal Office for Head Start conduct fraud risk assessment, evaluate new practices designed to speed up monitoring of grantees, and provide guidance on "when a student's slot should be considered vacant due to absenteeism."

Pupils and teachers walk through the neighborhood surrounding the Head Start program at the Congressman George Miller Children's Center in Richmond, Calif. in 2012. --File photo by Ramin Rahimian for Education Week


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