Sparks Fly over Revelations of Scandals in Head Start Program

Published June 1, 2005

Head Start or “No Start”? It’s been more of the latter in recent years on Capitol Hill, at least in the sense of being able to muster bipartisan agreement on terms for Head Start’s reauthorization. In recent months, leading Republican and Democratic congressmen have argued over how deeply financial mismanagement taints the program, and what to do about it.

That’s a big change from the program’s glory days. Created 40 years ago as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious “war on poverty,” Head Start drew praise and support from leading politicians of both parties. The idea was to give preschool children from low-income homes an array of medical, developmental, and educational services to help them achieve equal footing with more privileged children, and give community organizations federal grants to make this happen.

But despite the fact that Head Start’s annual spending now approaches $7 billion, the program’s value for the 910,000 toddlers it serves remains hotly debated.

Financial Mismanagement Alleged

President George W. Bush has urged Congress to reauthorize Head Start in a way that beefs up its academic components. He and his congressional allies also want to coordinate Head Start with successful state early childhood programs and start giving governors a share of control.

Democrats prefer to preserve the program’s basic structure, alleging Bush’s plan is merely a scheme to dismantle it. Meanwhile, the teacher unions–notably the National Education Association–are taking a more aggressive approach, calling for “optional free, publicly funded, quality ‘universal’ pre-kindergarten programs for all three- and four-year-old children whose parents choose to enroll them.”

In 2003, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved a Head Start reauthorization bill, dubbed “The School Readiness Act,” along the lines of the devolution Bush sought. The vote was 217-216, without a single Democrat voting “aye.” The Senate Education Committee passed a wholly different version that never saw floor action, and the partisan battles were left to be re-fought.

In 2005, the debate’s focus has shifted from Head Start’s academic impact (or lack of it) to allegations of financial mismanagement in some local programs. Setting the stage was a March 18 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) that warned flaws in the Head Start financial control system make it fail to protect against scams that cheat poor children and taxpayers alike.

Abuses Discovered

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is supposed to oversee Head Start grantees. Yet the GAO reported Head Start grantees the ACF judged out of compliance in 2000 were “about as likely to remain out of compliance as attain full compliance over the succeeding 3 years. … ACF’s failure to ensure that more grantees promptly resolve such problems creates opportunities for financial losses or instability that affect services to children and families.”

Soon after the GAO report became public, House Education Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE) turned up the heat by jointly releasing a document summarizing media reports of actual financial abuse in Head Start programs from 2003 to 2005. Some of the most glaring examples:

  • In Kansas City, the executive in charge of Head Start drew an annual salary of more than $300,000 and drove a luxury sport-utility vehicle leased in part with federal funds meant to help disadvantaged preschoolers.
  • In Maryland, the Head Start director in Gardenville was indicted on charges of stealing $355,777 from the organization over a four-year period.
  • In Lubbock, Texas, the former director of the Community Action Council pled guilty to using federal money, intended for Head Start children, to operate a Mexican restaurant in San Angelo. The U.S. Department of Justice said the director had embezzled more than $805,000 over two years by operating several schemes to divert Head Start funds.

Dismissed as Bad Apples

“The reality is that some bad actors are putting a bad light on the good programs that exist nationwide,” Castle said, “and for the benefit of the program and all who take part in it, it is important to institute reform to ensure Head Start can continue to serve all needy children in the way it is supposed to.”

At a House Education Committee hearing in April, the top-ranking Democrat, George Miller of California, had a different take. He said he was “disappointed” by Republicans using Head Start management and accountability issues to cover “their real agenda, which is to dismantle Head Start as we know it.”

Miller said the federal government must ferret out fraud and waste, but that the proper tools to do that with Head Start are already in place, needing only “to be better implemented.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute.