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Head Start Fraud: Yes and No

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Lead from the Start: Head Start Fraud: Yes and No

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Head Start Fraud: Yes and No

I can't say I don't believe it. That's the only way I can respond to this article in the Washington Post on Head Start enrollment fraud. I am a Head Start employee who fully supports the program but it is really easy to see how this sort of fraud might happen. Often the people who enroll Head Start families are from the community they serve. They want to help their neighbors get in on the good deal that Head Start can be for families.

I can see how something like this could happen,

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 article doesn't say that there were eligible families on the wait list, it just says there could have been. There is an important dynamic not mentioned in the article. Head Start is expected to have 100% enrollment on the opening day of school. It is hard but it can be done. There is a lot of pressure to make sure enrollment is full. There seems to have been a strong enrollment push for since 2002 that directors could interpret in different ways.

Obviously this a failure but what kind?

If the eligible families are there but not enrolling then there is a different malfunction in the system. Then it becomes a recruiting issue, are finding the children, advertising on outlets the community is engaged with, are you getting the word out? If a center or program answers, "No" to any one of these questions then there is only one reason it could happen. Leadership.

If the program director is not actively discouraging these types of disingenuous enrollment practices through monitoring and oversight then there is a failure of leadership. If directors are not changing their recruitment strategies to suit their constituents lifestyles it is a failure of leadership.

It is not, however, a failure of the Head Start program, no matter how far opponents of Head Start try to carry this political football. There is a difference between a systemic failure and an individual failure. Could enrollment procedures be tighter, probably, but it is already a more stringent process than enrolling in public school. So lets place the blame but just make sure it falls on the responsible party's shoulders. This is obviously failure of leadership not the people on the ground serving children and families. Someone told that person enrolling that fictitious family, either explicitly or implicitly, make sure we have our enrollment numbers. If anything is a failure in this system, it is over reliance on numbers to determine success.


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