“Fraud,” “deceit,” and “exploitation.”  Those words were used this week at a hearing about the Head Start program–the federal government’s long-standing preschool program for low-income children. An investigation carried out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), revealed several cases of underreporting of income and the falsification of addresses by Head Start employees in order to “qualify” children for the program. Head Start grantees receive money based on the number of children they serve.

As reported in an Education and Labor committee hearing on May 18, reports of two fraudulent cases lead the GAO to conduct an undercover investigation in which they attempted to enroll 15 fraudulent children. In over half of these cases Head Start employees encouraged families to misrepresent their income, falsify family income on enrollment forms, or make claims that a working parent was instead unemployed.

Representative Kline issued a statement about the GAO report:

GAO’s finding of fraudulent practices at half the centers investigated raises serious questions about the pervasiveness of these practices. I applaud the GAO’s efforts to bring this information to light, and I welcome the broader inquiry by the Inspector General to determine the larger program vulnerabilities.

And indeed there are larger vulnerabilities in the federal government’s largest preschool program. A recently-released federally-mandated evaluation of Head Start revealed that the program produced zero lasting academic impacts for children. Yet taxpayers have poured $167 billion into it for the last 45 years. Despite the most recent Head Start Impact Study clearly indicating that students who participate in the program do not fare any better than their non-attending peers and in some cases even do worse, Congress has allocated $1 billion more to this program for FY 2011.

One would think the government’s largest preschool program – at $9 billion per year – being deemed ineffective would garner some attention. But in a recent Heritage Foundation panel, Drs. Russ Whitehurst, the director of education policy research at the Brookings Institution, and Nicholas Zill, who worked as a lead analyst on the study–pointed out that it took the government six years from the time the data was collected to get around to reporting the results. Said Dr. Whitehurst:

Delayed data are useless data. One reason we’ve gotten so little attention to the data is that the actions that should have been predicated on the results of the study have already been taken…I think the main reason why [the study is] being ignored is the results were negative. In fact, I think if the results were positive, even if they had been delayed years and years they would have been on the front page of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many other media outlets.

Yet at Tuesday’s hearing, all that was heard about Head Start was the virtues of this program and how to make sure that the neediest children are not harmed as a result of enrollment fraud. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), head of the Education and Labor Committee, firmly stated:

Head Start works for our children and we are here today to make sure it will continue to do so.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) clearly stated that Head Start is supposed to close the achievement gap between needy children and their more affluent peers. And Carmen Nazario, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out that Head Start provides almost 1 million children with “a much needed chance at success.”

Unfortunately, in a hearing meant to uncover the truth, these statements perpetuated the false notion that Head Start is succeeding at its mission. Mr. Gregory Kutz of the Government Accountability Office spoke more accurately, when he stated: “I fear that enrollment fraud is not the only fraud in the Head Start program.” He’s right: it’s hard to conclude otherwise after 45 years, $167 billion, and little benefit for millions of children. Shouldn’t we hope for better for America’s young learners?