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EDITORIAL: Streamlining early childhood services is a good starting point

As chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., is advocating for streamlining federal programs that fund child care and early childhood education. The goal, he said, is to eliminate duplication of services to make those programs more efficient and effective.

On Feb. 23, Enzi sent a letter to Thomas Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Elizabeth DeVos, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, urging them to work toward achieving that goal.

In his letter, Enzi cited a 2014 Government Accountability Office report, which found 45 federal programs provide or support services to children from birth through age 5.

While those programs are concentrated primarily in the Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, others are administered by the departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, the General Services Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission, the report said.

“Some of these programs overlap in that they have similar goals for children under the age of 5 and are targeted to similar groups of children,” the GAO report said. “For example, five programs, administered by Education and HHS, provide school readiness services to low-income children, and programs in both Education and the Interior provide funding for early learning services for Indian children.”

In his letter, Enzi said, “While I believe that funding wisely invested in early learning and child care programs is a benefit to our nation and saves taxpayers later on, there is important work to be done in order to ensure that the federal programs we invest in are not fragmented or overlapping.”

Here in Powell, we saw a prime example of the inefficiency and waste created when agencies don’t work together to serve children.

Until a few years ago, the regular Absaroka Head Start Program — which operates under the Department of Health and Human Services — and the Migrant Head Start program — which operates under the Department of Agriculture — were housed in separate buildings, despite the fact that the regular program operated during the school year and the migrant program operated during summer.

That meant that, until 2011, the modern, spacious Migrant Head Start facility, built in 2000, stood empty for nine months out of the year while children in the regular program attended Head Start in the basement of an older local church building.

Besides being wasteful, leaving the migrant building empty and unattended during the school year set the stage for extensive water damage caused by flooding when water pipes froze and burst during a cold snap in early 2009.

After costly repairs were completed, the migrant program housed a few employees in offices in the building year-round to avoid a repeat of that problem. But children in the regular Head Start program continued to meet in an older basement classroom while bright, cheerful classrooms in the migrant facility stood empty.

That situation was corrected in 2011 when Absaroka Inc. received grants to run both the migrant and the regular head start programs and brought them under the same roof, along with the Early Head Start program. Had that not occurred, they would have continued to operate in separate facilities.

We’re thankful that local officials worked together to create an efficient solution here in Powell, but we wonder how many inefficiencies have gone unaddressed in other communities across the country.

The GAO report stated that there is no federal interagency workgroup that coordinates early learning and child care efforts across all federal agencies.

That results in fragmentation, duplication and gaps in services, the report found.

Enzi called on the education department to begin a consolidation and elimination process to ensure that students are best served by well-coordinated programs.

“... Multiple federal agencies don’t work as well for kids as would a few concentrated federal programs,” Enzi said in a press release Tuesday. “I am more interested in how resources can better reach students than what will benefit federal program administrators.”

We agree. It just makes sense to streamline federal early childhood programs, especially now, with the need to rein in the federal budget and reduce spending and inefficiencies.

But the effort shouldn’t stop there. While this is a good starting point, Congress must take a very serious look at duplications and inefficiency across the spectrum of  federal government services.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent, nonpartisan agency, was created to investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. So far, it seems too little attention has been paid to the findings of that office, and way too few steps taken to address them.

With corrective action, the Government Accountability Office can be a resource for finding and applying solutions to government structure and funding problems.

Without that action, the GAO becomes just another agency going through the motions and spending federal dollars with few results to show for them.

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