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Federal Government Should Allow More Competition for Head Start Grants, Witnesses Tell House Education Committee

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Location: Washington, DC


Federal Government Should Allow More Competition for Head Start Grants, Witnesses Tell House Education Committee
April 5, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Witnesses, including the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), today told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that the federal government needs to allow greater competition for federal Head Start grants - a development that illustrates growing concern about accountability problems in the Head Start early childhood program, said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH). The new development comes just weeks after GOP education committee leaders released a GAO report that warns the financial control system in Head Start is flawed and failing to prevent multi-million dollar financial abuses that cheat poor children, taxpayers, and law-abiding Head Start operators.

"By failing to promote competition for Head Start grants, the federal government has essentially granted monopoly power to some Head Start operators - and as often happens with monopolies, that power has been abused," Boehner said during a House hearing this afternoon on the GAO report. "Removing obstacles to competition for Head Start grants must be a top priority for Congress in reauthorizing Head Start. If we fail to accomplish this goal, we will fail in our most basic responsibility to children and taxpayers."

Boehner also said that while neither congressional Republicans nor President Bush have ever proposed turning Head Start into a "block grant," improving qualified states' ability to coordinate their own programs with Head Start remains an important goal for this year's Head Start congressional reauthorization. Boehner noted that the 2003 reauthorization bill passed by the House included key provisions addressing this need, but said he is willing to look at alternative routes that can be taken to the same goal if opponents of the 2003 approach can identify an effective alternative.

"I do think we need to help such states better integrate and coordinate these programs with Head Start, to better serve the needs of our most disadvantaged children. When Head Start was first established 40 years ago, it was the only program of its kind-federal or state. Now there are many different programs across the country preparing children for kindergarten, and we need to make sure all of those children are getting the same quality education," Boehner said. "In the last Congress, this Committee passed a bill that sought to address this need. But we know many things today we didn't know then, particularly with respect to the financial control problems that exist in Head Start. With this in mind, I think we have a responsibility to start from square one, and build this year's legislation from the ground up. There were many elements in the 2003 bill that had bipartisan support. Those things may provide a good foundation. And in those areas where there was disagreement, I'm more than willing to look at alternative routes that can be taken to reach the same goal, if they might be effective. That includes the issue of coordination with state programs, which generated the most disagreement two years ago."

"I'm committed to passing a bill that promotes competition, strengthens academics, and restores fairness for children, taxpayers, and honest grantees. I think we can produce a bill that does these things, and does it in a bipartisan fashion. As the Head Start reauthorization process moves forward, this will be my goal," Boehner added.

The GAO report, requested in 2003 by Boehner and Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Mike Castle (R-DE) along with Senate education committee leaders, determined that unresolved financial management weaknesses among Head Start grantees are having a negative impact on some eligible children. It also determined that the procedures the federal government uses to collect data on grantee financial management performance have significant flaws. To help combat these problems, GAO recommends that the federal government take steps to allow the "recompetition" of grants awarded to Head Start grantees, and take other steps.

The full text of opening statements given by Chairman Boehner and Chairman Castle at today's hearing follows.

STATEMENT BY HOUSE EDUCATION AND THE WORKFORCE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH)
HEARING ON FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE HEAD START EARLY CHILDHOOD PROGRAM
APRIL 5, 2005

High quality early childhood education is essential to closing the achievement gap that exists in our country between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers. President Bush urged Americans to unite to eliminate this gap when he took office in 2001. Congress has responded by enacting two major overhauls of education law - the No Child Left Behind Act, and the special education bill signed by the President last December. Today our Committee embarks on another phase of this process: strengthening the Head Start early childhood program.

Head Start's mission is to prepare disadvantaged children for kindergarten. This Committee has strongly supported Head Start in this mission over the years, particularly during the past decade. Federal funding for Head Start has nearly doubled since Republicans assumed control of the House in 1995, increasing from $3.6 billion annually in FY 1996 to nearly $7 billion this year.

I support Head Start. It's an important program that is entrusted with a vitally important mission. I believe the vast majority of those involved with Head Start are honest individuals who are dedicated to making sure the poorest of our nation's children have a chance to succeed in life. I believe we need to listen to these people, and support them, and support the children they serve. I know Chairman Castle agrees. I think the President agrees. And I don't think there's a single member of this Committee who disagrees.

I also want to state that neither I, nor President Bush, nor Chairman Castle, have called for turning Head Start into a so-called "block grant" to the states or "dismantling" Head Start. As I said two years ago - as a conservative Republican, I know a block grant when I see one. And trust me - what President Bush has proposed for Head Start is no block grant.
There are, however, two critical problems in Head Start that I believe Congress has to address.

One problem is the school readiness gap that continues to exist between some Head Start children and their peers when they reach kindergarten. There's no question most Head Start children are better off in the program than they would have been without it; that is not in dispute. But there's evidence some Head Start centers could be doing an even better job of providing preschoolers with the academic foundation they need to succeed in school. A study released last year by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that while children in Head Start are learning, they are still more than 25 percentile points behind the national average. We need to listen to the people who run the best programs in the Head Start system, get their input on what works, and use that information to strengthen the weaker programs. Last week our Committee launched a website to facilitate this project. I encourage parents, teachers, taxpayers and anyone else with an interest in Head Start to check out this website and use it to share your experiences.

The second problem is that an unacceptable share of federal Head Start funding never reaches the disadvantaged children the money is meant to serve. Instead it is being lost to financial abuse, mismanagement, impropriety, or outright theft within the Head Start system. These abuses are happening at the expense of children served by the many law-abiding grantees within the Head Start system - grantees that too often are put in the position of being forced to defend the actions of the "bad apples" in the program.

Between January 2003 and the first months of 2005, media accounts in numerous U.S. cities alleged serious financial abuses and irregularities by those entrusted with the responsibility of managing Head Start funds meant to serve poor children. The incidents identified in these reports collectively involve the use of tens of millions in federal Head Start funds that were intended to serve more than 10,000 disadvantaged U.S. children. Such reports surfaced in Baltimore, Maryland; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina; Charleston, West Virginia; Cleveland, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Honolulu, Hawaii; Jamestown, North Dakota; Kansas City, Missouri; Las Vegas, Nevada; Little Rock, Arkansas; Lubbock, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin; Norwalk, Connecticut; Rapid City, South Dakota; San Antonio, Texas; and Stockton, California. Some reports involving financial mismanagement suggest that many Head Start grantees have good intentions, yet lack strong fiscal controls and the skills needed to effectively manage complex, multi-million dollar non-profit organizations.

As much as we all support Head Start, Congress simply cannot turn a blind eye to this problem. Financial abuse in the Head Start system cheats not only children and taxpayers, but also the many law-abiding local Head Start grantees nationwide who find themselves in the position of being asked to defend indefensible practices by other grantees.
A new report by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO) warns the financial control system in the federal Head Start early childhood program is flawed and failing to prevent these abuses. GAO has independently determined that unresolved financial management weaknesses among Head Start grantees are having a negative impact on some eligible children. It has also determined that the procedures the federal government uses to collect data on grantee financial management performance have significant flaws.

The GAO report recommends that the federal government take steps to allow the "recompetition" of grants awarded to Head Start grantees. I'm particularly interested in hearing from our witnesses today on this issue. It's my view that by failing to promote competition for Head Start grants, the federal government has essentially granted monopoly power to some Head Start operators - and as often happens with monopolies, that power has been abused.

Removing obstacles to competition for Head Start grants must be a top priority for Congress in reauthorizing Head Start. If we fail to accomplish this goal, we will fail in our most basic responsibility to children and taxpayers.

Also, some states are operating their own early childhood programs, programs that sometimes rival Head Start in quality. I do think we need to help such states better integrate and coordinate these programs with Head Start, to better serve the needs of our most disadvantaged children. When Head Start was first established 40 years ago, it was the only program of its kind - federal or state. Now there are many different programs across the country preparing children for kindergarten, and we need to make sure all of those children are getting the same quality education.

In the last Congress, this Committee passed a bill that sought to address this need. But we know many things today we didn't know then, particularly with respect to the financial control problems that exist in Head Start. With this in mind, I think we have a responsibility to start from square one, and build this year's legislation from the ground up. There were many elements in the 2003 bill that had bipartisan support. Those things may provide a good foundation. And in those areas where there was disagreement, I'm more than willing to look at alternative routes that can be taken to reach the same goal, if they might be effective. That includes the issue of coordination with state programs, which generated the most disagreement two years ago.

I'm committed to passing a bill that promotes competition, strengthens academics, and restores fairness for children, taxpayers, and honest grantees. I think we can produce a bill that does these things, and does it in a bipartisan fashion. As the Head Start reauthorization process moves forward, this will be my goal.

I would now yield to the senior Democratic member of our committee, Mr. Miller, for any opening statement he may have.

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

http://edworkforce.house.gov/press/press109/first/04apr/headstarthearing040505.htm

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