Effective use of federal funding is imperative to meet the needs of America’s most vulnerable early learners. To ensure those precious public resources are efficiently spent, Congressional leaders regularly (and rightly) ask about potential fragmentation, overlap and duplication of the various federal programs providing early care and education. Last month, Congress’ oversight arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), examined these questions and reported back to lawmakers, revealing some very encouraging and promising findings.
Although the report identified 44 federal programs that make funds available for early childhood needs, only nine of them have an explicit early learning or child care purpose. Of those nine, just two of them -- Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) -- comprise about 90% of the $15 billion annual federal investment in early care and education. The other 10% includes more targeted populations (children with disabilities, parents in college) or have very specific purposes (welfare reform, nutritious meals). A large majority of the 44 funding sources that were identified do not even require that funds are spent on early childhood programs.
So, is this federal investment fragmented? Yes, the report says it is fragmented, meaning multiple government agencies--Health and Human Services (HHS), Education (ED), Interior, Agriculture-- administer programs that serve an early childhood purpose. Not only does the report say this is not a particular problem, but adds that fragmentation can, in fact, be “appropriate or beneficial.”
What about overlap? Of the nine programs, the GAO also found overlap, meaning more than one program serves children age five and under, targets children from low-income families, or uses federal funds to enroll participants. Is such overlap harmful, wasteful or even unintentional, though? Hardly. The GAO report asserts that the programs have different goals, despite some limited similarities. In fact, the GAO found that overlap is sometimes purposeful and even necessary to meet the multiple, diverse needs of families, and also because current funding levels leave too many eligible children without access to each of the programs.
For example, the report notes that Child Care Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS) and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) both fund child care, but these two programs differ in that CCDF is a work support for parents while CCAMPIS supports parents who attend postsecondary education. The GAO also pointed to the different purposes of Head Start and CCDF, specifying that Head Start is a community-based program that serves children’s diverse needs through comprehensive services, contrasting CCDF’s purpose of subsidizing states’ child care costs to enable parents to work. The implication is that there are legitimate reasons for these two programs to be separate. This finding reinforces a conclusion drawn by HHS and ED in the departments’ joint report last fall – that insufficient resources will naturally (and necessarily) lead to overlap.
What about duplication? As with previous recent reports on this topic, the GAO again could not confirm that there is any duplication, adding that it is difficult to assess whether duplication exists or not. The report did note that some early learning programs include safeguards against duplication, such as requirements that funds be used to expand access to reach more children, thereby limiting the possibility of one recipient receiving duplicative services.
The report found that HHS and ED have improved coordination among different programs and agencies administering these various programs, an improvement which has mitigated overlap and fragmentation. This effective coordination is exemplified by joint HHS-ED administration of the Preschool Development Grants, combined policy statements, and shared training and technical assistance, ultimately reducing the burdens on providers and better serving children and families nationwide.
Early childhood education for the nation’s most vulnerable children is a costly endeavor. Even with additional state and local early childhood funds, the $15 billion in annual federal funds is able to serve only a small percentage of qualified children under age five. The early childhood community is committed to maximizing federal dollars by ensuring the efficient, effective delivery of services to as many vulnerable children as possible. And, as the GAO found – a cross-agency commitment to improved coordination is yielding benefits to children, families, providers and entire communities.