Congressional Leaders Call for Head Start Probe

Published January 1, 2004

Congressional leaders have asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative agency of Congress, to inspect the financial controls and monitoring practices of the Head Start program before Congress acts to reauthorize the preschool program.

The request, from the U.S. House Representatives and Senate chairmen of committees with jurisdiction over the Head Start program, is in response to allegations of fraud and other financial improprieties by Head Start centers, as reported recently by the Kansas City Star, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Charleston Post and Courier, San Antonio Express-News, Chicago Sun-Times, and other newspapers.

The allegations include:

  • Excessive salaries, with some administrators being paid up to $300,000 a year;
  • Millions in unaccounted-for grant funds;
  • “Ghost” children and other irregularities.

Calling for the probe were chairman of the House education committee John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Senate education committee Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), and Rep. Michael Castle (R-Delaware). Boehner said the Head Start establishment had “a growing credibility problem.”

In a New York Times interview, the president of the National Head Start Association, Sarah Greene, described the Congressional effort as “a smoke and mirrors campaign” to discredit the program. The Association strongly opposes legislation recently passed by the House.

Congress has been working to reauthorize the 38-year-old program. Currently funded at $6.6 billion, the Head Start program provides health, social, educational, and mental health services to more than 900,000 three- to five-year-old low-income children at a cost of almost $7,000 per pupil. The Department of Health and Human Services directly funds the program’s 19,000 centers, which are operated by community and faith-based organizations and local public schools.

The program was created to address the school readiness gap between poor children and their middle-class peers. Since its inception, Head Start has enrolled more than 21 million children at a cost to taxpayers of more than $66 billion. Although research shows the program may provide short-term cognitive benefits, there is little evidence of long-term impact and the school readiness gap remains stubbornly large. In general, poor children enter kindergarten a step behind their middle-class peers and never catch up.

Attempt at Reform

In response to Head Start’s perceived failure, the House of Representatives in July 2003 passed the School Readiness Act (H.R. 2210) by a vote of 217 to 216. The bill emphasizes cognitive development and school readiness and also improves accountability. Building on the 1998 reauthorization, the House bill sets standards for language skills, pre-reading knowledge, counting and other pre-mathematics knowledge, cognitive abilities, social development, and progress in language among non-English-speaking children. The standards are meant to correct a lack of academic goals in some Head Start programs.

“[W]hen you look at where Head Start has been in the last few years, they’ve been bending over backwards to avoid literacy skills…” noted Nicholas Zill, vice president of the Westat research firm. “The ironic thing is that most Head Start parents want their kids to learn those skills.”

Additionally, the House bill would bring the Head Start program into conformance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by guaranteeing the right of faith-based organizations to hire people of the same faith. At present, providers may not hire staff according to their religious principles–a right Congress has guaranteed faith-based organizations operating many other federal social service programs.

The bill also establishes a small pilot program to allow eight states to integrate and improve Head Start programs. Under current law, states have no authority to work with or improve Head Start programs. This lack of coordination has resulted in “overlapping programs and duplication of services at the state and local level” and “under-enrollment in Head Start programs and gaps in services,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Senate’s bill, which passed out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, contains neither civil rights protections for faith-based providers nor the pilot program. In response to reports of excessive pay, it does, however, cap Head Start employee salaries at the level of the Secretary of Health and Human Services, which is $171,900.

Krista Kafer is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The Heritage Foundation’s October 29, 2003 Backgrounder No. 1701 by Krista Kafer, “What Congress Can Do to Get a Better Head Start,” is available from the Foundation’s Web site at