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Biggert Statement: Hearing on "Examining GAO's Review of Selected Head Start Grantees"

Location: Washington, DC

Thank you Chairman Miller, and thank you to the witnesses who are here this afternoon to discuss this extremely important -- and extremely troubling -- topic.

As the name indicates, the Head Start program is designed to give our neediest children a "head start" before enrolling in school. Because children who lag behind when they start school tend to remain behind, Head Start is supposed to help close the readiness gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers.

After leaving law school, I volunteered at the Head Start program in the Chicago Hull House -- the very first year that the program was offered. I saw first-hand the value of early intervention in the lives of these underprivileged children. That's why I was so disturbed to hear the recent findings of the Government Accountability Office.

We will hear today about deliberate efforts to circumvent the program's income limitations, including compelling evidence of Head Start centers discarding proof of income in order to pad their enrollment, absorb funding for children who were never served, and continue collecting a larger share of Head Start resources than they were due.

This is not a victimless crime. Every dollar that goes to higher-income children -- or to centers not serving as many children as they claim -- is a dollar that cannot be used for the low-income children this program is meant to serve.

The GAO investigation sampled but a few of the roughly 1,600 Head Start grantees across the nation. Based on these preliminary findings, it is clear that further review is necessary. Indeed, it is my understanding that investigations by GAO and other authorities are ongoing. For that reason, I believe that it is important to go on record to express reservations about the potential consequences of a public hearing.

The cases we'll review this afternoon are part of an undercover investigation. In such cases, it is important that neither the identities of those who are targeted in the investigation -- nor the identities of the undercover agents posing as prospective enrollees -- be compromised. We have received assurances from Chairman Miller that steps are being taken today to conceal individual identities and localities -- and with those assurances, we are able to move forward today.

However, I think that we can all agree that additional congressional oversight -- including future hearings -- will be in order once these investigations are complete and the full results of GAO's work can be revealed. It is vital for Congress to expose and root out this type of waste, fraud, and abuse, but I do not believe that any of us wishes to jeopardize an ongoing and potentially criminal investigation.

In fact, I and many others were so troubled by these preliminary findings that we believe the investigation into these specific incidents -- and the investigating authorities -- ought to be broadened. Upon being informed of the GAO's preliminary findings, Congressman John Kline -- this committee's Senior Republican Member -- wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General to request a comprehensive investigation into the vulnerability of Head Start's verification processes to fraud and abuse.

I echo his concerns. The GAO has brought to light a disturbing pattern of abuse in a program designed to serve our most vulnerable children. I expect the GAO will continue its important work in this area, and I'm pleased its investigation will be bolstered by a more comprehensive review by the agency's independent watchdog. I also appreciate the steps announced yesterday by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to intensify program oversight.

The IG was quick to respond to Ranking Member Kline's request for a broader investigation, recognizing the severity of this issue and agreeing to expand the investigation to determine whether there are systemic vulnerabilities that victimize both the taxpayers and the low-income children and families Head Start is intended to serve.

As lawmakers, we need to have confidence that the programs we authorize and the dollars we appropriate are serving their intended purpose. Today's hearing is an important first step to determine whether the public trust has been broken and whether it can be restored to ensure that Head Start fulfills its mission of serving low-income children and families.

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