The upcoming reauthorization of Head Start this year is raising concerns about the federal preschool program. There is a battle between those who want to make changes to the 40-year-old program and those who believe it is working well. Recent hearings have called for better financial oversight of Head Start, following a critical report from the Government Accountability Office. House Republicans and the Head Start Association have created opposing websites to provide information on the program. The reauthorization process is expected to become more contentious.
Lawmakers are reevaluating various aspects of the nearly $7 billion Head Start program. Financial mismanagement has become a major concern, with reports of alleged abuses such as excessive salaries for directors and embezzlement of funds. During hearings, witnesses, including a Head Start parent and federal officials, were criticized by Rep. George Miller for their behavior, which he described as criminal intent rather than a compliance issue. Sen. Pat Roberts also expressed his frustration with financial problems at a local Head Start agency in Kansas City.
The hearings examined a report from the Government Accountability Office that identified flaws in oversight by the Administration for Children and Families. Marnie S. Shaul, director of education, workforce, and income-security issues for the GAO, emphasized the need for better risk assessment and oversight of local Head Start programs. Rep. Michael N. Castle referred to the report as "damning." Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families, acknowledged the need for improvement and expressed disagreement with the GAO on contract reassignment.
There were suggestions that insufficient training for local Head Start oversight boards, including parent-advisory boards, contributes to the problem. A.C. Wharton, the mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, recommended greater involvement from local governments in oversight. He described discovering serious financial mismanagement in his local Head Start program but facing difficulties in addressing the issue.
Amidst these concerns, changes to the Head Start program are being discussed. The reauthorization process will likely lead to further debates and revisions.
Olivia Golden, a former assistant secretary at the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) during President Clinton’s term and currently a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., emphasized the consistent high quality of most Head Start programs. While it is necessary to eliminate poor-performing programs, it is equally important to support and sustain successful ones, according to Golden. She highlighted the need for continuity when programs demonstrate effectiveness.
Beyond the formal hearings, there is an ongoing public debate that often evokes emotional responses. The House education committee recently launched a dedicated section on its website focusing on financial abuses within the Head Start program. In response, the Head Start Association promptly introduced its own website, inviting parents and Head Start graduates to join their efforts to safeguard the program.