A federal watchdog is warning that there may be lead in the drinking water in federally funded child care centers that serve low-income children across the country. It’s the latest evidence that Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services should be exploring ways to improve the safety and value of the federal Head Start program to give disadvantaged kids a better chance to succeed.
The program costs $10 billion annually and serves nearly 1 million children and their parents.
In September, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report examining the safety of the drinking water at federally-funded child care facilities. The auditors surveyed 762 Head Start centers and found that “an estimated 43% of Head Start centers had not tested their drinking water for lead in late 2018 or 2019, and 31% did not know whether they had tested, according to GAO’s nationwide survey.”
Among the 26% of Head Start centers that had tested in the past year, 10% reported finding the presence of lead in the drinking water. Based on this rate, it’s reasonable to assume that at least 50 of the 762 Head Start centers probably have lead in their water but haven’t tested for it.
That’s a serious problem for all children at risk. According to GAO, “Young children are particularly at risk of experiencing the adverse effects of lead exposure from a variety of sources, including drinking water.”
The latest in a series of alarming reports about Head Start safety and mismanagement
The new report is just the latest in a series of federal oversight reports that found problems involving fraud or safety in the Head Start program. In 2019, GAO attempted to enroll fictitious, ineligible children in 15 Head Start centers, and found that five centers either doctored or ignored disqualifying information to allow the imaginary children to fraudulently enroll.
Jonathan Butcher and Jude Schwalbach reviewed the research in a February 2020 report for the Heritage Foundation. “Reports of child abuse and fiscal fraud demonstrate that many Head Start centers have systemic administrative failings and do not follow basic steps to protect children,” they wrote.
These aren’t new problems. In 2005, House Republicans, led by then Education and Workforce Committee chair John Boehner, issued an oversight report documenting widespread fraud and mismanagement in the program.
Head Start provides poor value for parents and children served
Beyond these problems of fraud, mismanagement and safety, the Head Start program provides poor value for children and parents.
For starters, the Head Start program does not provide lasting academic benefits for children enrolled. A long-anticipated, Congressionally-mandated evaluation found no lasting academic benefits from attending Head Start. (The HHS Department resisted releasing the final results and only relented after facing pressure from several senators, including my former boss, Tom Coburn, former U.S. Representative and senator from Oklahoma. The department finally released the report on the Friday before Christmas.)
Beyond the discouraging academic effects, Head Start offers parents poor values as a source of child care compared to state programs and private providers. That’s because Head Start only requires that providers offer 448 hours of care per year.
I summarized this argument in a recent article for The Dispatch:
“The federal government’s largest preschool program offers a poor deal for parents. The United States spends $9 billion annually on Head Start, or more than $10,000 per student enrolled. But Head Start centers are required to provide only 448 hours of care per year, less than half of the 1,000 hours that most public schools are open. Past evaluations have found that Head Start doesn’t provide lasting educational benefits for participating kids.
Giving parents control of their child’s share of Head Start funding to arrange for private child care could dramatically increase the number of hours of care provided and improve the program’s educational value. For example, in 37 states, the per-child cost of the Head Start program is more than the average cost of full-time child care for a 4-year-old. Increasing the hours of child care provided would allow working parents to boost annual earnings by 20% or more.”
Consider, for example, how Florida’s voluntary pre-K scholarship program compares with Head Start. Florida offers a voluntary preschool voucher worth approximately $2,200 per child. To collect vouchers and enroll children, Florida preschool providers must offer 540 hours of service annually. In comparison, Florida’s per-child Head Start spending is $8,900 (or four times greater), even though Head Start providers may offer 92 hours less care per year.
Parents and children deserve better preschool options than Head Start
Reforming the Head Start program to create better options for parents and children is long overdue. Congress hasn’t reauthorized Head Start since 2007.
It shouldn’t require reports of lead in the drinking water to spur congressional action to reform Head Start. But the latest alarming warnings about the federal government’s oldest preschool program should be a wake-up call. It’s time for Congress to take a new, close look at the Head Start program and provide parents and children with better options.