By Nick Anderson
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; A17
Undercover investigators have found evidence of fraud and abuse at federal Head Start preschool centers in the Washington area and elsewhere, including cases in which enrollment procedures were manipulated to put potentially ineligible applicants into slots reserved for needier children.
The Government Accountability Office told Congress on Tuesday that investigators posed as families to test whether Head Start centers in six states and the District followed federal rules. In eight of 15 cases, the GAO found, staff members at the centers fraudulently misrepresented financial information from applicants.
"This leaves Head Start at risk that over-income children may be enrolled while legitimate under-income children are put on wait lists," the GAO concluded.
One D.C. center disregarded $9,600 in reported income to enroll a fictitious family of three. An associate at the center told undercover investigators: "We don't need any extra; we need to keep you low."
The report does not identify centers by name, officials said, because the investigation is continuing.
Head Start, an anti-poverty program that dates to the 1960s, provides preschool, social and health services to more than 900,000 children and their families. It receives more than $7 billion in federal funding annually.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose department oversees the program, wrote in a response to the report that President Obama has been briefed on the issue and that the administration will take swift action to tighten enforcement. Among possible steps, she wrote, are terminating federal funding to organizations that run the Head Start centers and referring cases for criminal prosecution.
The House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on the report Tuesday.
"Allowing ineligible children to enroll in the program is a blatant violation of Head Start's rules, and it steals opportunity from children who need it most," Sebelius wrote to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the panel's chairman. "Our administration will not stand for it."