WASHINGTON – The nation's preschool program is susceptible to waste and poor service by local centers because of weak federal oversight, a congressional audit says.
The review by the Government Accountability Office depicts federal management of Head Start (search) as disjointed and inconsistent, allowing financial problems to go unchecked or unfixed.
The audit — which is to be released Friday but was obtained in advance by The Associated Press — focuses on the Administration for Children and Families (search), a division of the Health and Human Services Department that oversees Head Start. The program, begun during President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s, provides comprehensive help to poor children.
The report comes as Republican education leaders in the House and Senate have been critical of Head Start management, citing scattered cases of financial improprieties. The oversight issue is likely to remain a political one this year, as Head Start is up for renewal and Congress considers giving states more power to oversee the preschool centers.
The GAO (search), which is Congress' auditing arm, performed the review at the behest of education committee leaders.
The study found that federal Head Start officials collect lots of data from nearly 1,700 local providers, but those findings are not used to identify overall program risks. The way the federal government monitors spending has "significant flaws," the GAO found, such as no routine reconciliation between what a center spends and the amount of cash it withdraws.
Federal officials also don't ensure that financial problems at the local level are fixed once they're discovered, the GAO says. In one example, more than half of the Head Start centers that failed a compliance check in 2000 did so again three years later.
Such failure to promptly resolve problems "creates opportunities for financial losses or instability that can affect services to children and families," the report said.
Auditors also criticized Head Start officials for continuing to give financial priority to some centers even if those local providers had repeatedly shown poor performance.
Congress spent $6.8 billion on Head Start in 2004, serving 919,000 children.
The Administration for Children and Families agreed with most of the GAO recommendations, including a call for a comprehensive review of the program's risks.
But Head Start administrators doubted they have the authority to solicit more competition for local grants when current grant-holders fail to meet standards, as the GAO suggests.
Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families, conceded that the program has had gaps in oversight. But he said the GAO report did not acknowledge recent improvements by HHS, including new qualifications for the people who review Head Start centers.
Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, a lobbying group, accused HHS of giving the GAO "twisted data" to undermine Head Start.
"If you take the time to untangle and understand the numbers," she said, "you will find that the vast majority of Head Start programs are managed properly and are producing results exactly as Congress intends."
But House and Senate education committee leaders said the GAO review shows Head Start needs urgent change. Committee leaders plan a joint hearing on the matter April 5.
"This is an injustice and an outrage, and Congress cannot allow it to stand," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Another committee member, Delaware Republican Mike Castle, said: "It's unfortunate that it has come to this point, but I am hopeful this report will be a catalyst for us to work together on critical reforms to restore the public's faith in Head Start programs."
The top Democrat on the House education committee, Rep. George Miller of California, said Congress should see the GAO findings as a chance to improve Head Start — not to undermine it.