It's Time To Fix Head Start

Word that the early-education program for poor children suffers from fraud and abuse signals the need for a new approach.

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This just in: Even the well-to-do are eager to feed at Uncle Sam's trough! Too rich for Head Start, but too poor (or too cheap) to pay for similar programs in the private sector? No problem. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office found that two Texas families enrolled in Head Start--which is designed to provide preschool education for impoverished children--made more than $110,000 per year.

Even worse, after his agency conducted 15 undercover operations at Head Start centers in six states, GAO official Gregory Kutz said there's a possibility of ''people with income over $100,000 getting served and people with no income getting wait-listed.''

The GAO said 506 of the 550 Head Start programs nationwide have wait lists. The other 44 have openings ... and that's apparently a no-no. Kutz said management at some centers warned workers they could be fired if they didn't keep enrollment up, leading them to count children twice, label middle-class families as ''homeless,'' and underreport families' income.

There's no telling how many eligible children are prevented from enrolling due to fraud. The report focused on a fraction of the roughly 1,600 nonprofits that receive Head Start money to run more than 3,000 programs. But seeing how there were eight cases of fraud in the 15 centers examined, these don't seem like isolated incidents in a federal program that's budgeted for about $9 billion this year.

As expected, there were promises of reform from the House Education and Labor Committee, which held a hearing on the report earlier this month, and from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start. Some of the suggestions are no-brainers, like conducting unannounced site visits and requiring agencies to keep proof of income documents. Workers who might be tempted to commit fraud to ensure steady paychecks must learn that cheating is a fast track to unemployment. But the biggest reform might be how we look at Head Start in the first place.

It's a great idea, intuitively, giving educational, nutritional and social services to preschool children from poor families, in an effort to help close the income gap. The program was established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's ''War on Poverty.'' Only 10 percent of a Head Start center's enrollment is allowed to have incomes that exceed 130 percent of the poverty level, or about $28,600 per year for a family of four. (Forty-four percent of the families at the center in Texas mentioned at the head of this article had incomes exceeding 130 percent of the poverty level.)

But even though we know socioeconomics can cause preschool children to fall behind, and many are aided by committed, effective and ethical early-education providers, we have to admit that Head Start's success has been mixed. Any other conclusion is less-than-honest. The Department of Health and Human Services released an impact study (PDF) in January, finding that while Head Start has positive educational and health benefits for the 3- and 4-year-olds it serves, the results often fade within a few years. And children from similar backgrounds who didn't enroll in Head Start, often have done as well or better.

Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank, told USA Today that with a Head Start center in virtually every congressional district, its widespread support will make much-needed reform difficult. ''You're not going to put the Head Start centers out of business without an enormous political fight,'' he said. ''And it's a fight they'd probably win.''

With one in five preschool children living in poverty, it's obvious that ''the war'' continues.

Maybe we ought to reconsider the 45-year-old battle plan.

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