Millions of children under the age of 5 participate each year in federally funded preschool and other early learning programs or receive federally supported child care in a range of settings. Federal programs that funded early learning and child care as an explicit purpose received at least $13.3 billion in federal funding in fiscal year 2010. Research supports the importance of providing high-quality early learning experiences during childrens formative years. Furthermore, as GAO reported in May 2010, research indicates that having reliable, high-quality child care is also critical to sustaining parents ability to work. Federal support for early learning and child care developed over time to meet emerging needs. However, GAO previously reported that multiple federal agencies administer this important investment through numerous programs. This is perhaps a consequence of the different historical origins of early learning and child care programs, creating fragmentation of efforts, some overlap of goals or activities, and potential confusion among families and other program users.
Fiscal year 2010 is the latest date for which actual obligations have been reported, and funding data for two programs were not reported in budget justifications but obtained from federal agencies. This figure includes funding for the 12 programs GAO identified as having an explicit purpose of providing early learning or child care for children. It does not include federal programs with other purposes that permit the use of funds for early learning and child care as an allowable activity or that provide supporting services such as food and nutrition. For example, the figure does not include funding for two multipurpose block grantsthe Social Services Block Grant and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)or for Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies.
J. Shonkoff and D. Phillips, Eds, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000).
The federal investment in early learning and child care is fragmented in that it is administered through 45 programs that provide or may support related services to children from birth through age 5, as well as five tax provisions that subsidize private expenditures in this area. The programs are concentrated within the Departments of Education (Education) and Health and Human Services (HHS)the principal administrators of the federal governments early learning and child care programsbut are also administered by the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Appalachian Regional Commission. 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. 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.
Among the 45 programs, 12 have an explicit program purpose of providing early learning or child care services. GAO reported in January 2000 that although individual programs may differ in the exact services provided, the distinction between early learning and child care has blurred over time as policymakers seek to make educationally enriching care available to young children. As seen in the table below, all 12 programs serve children under the age of 5, and some also serve older children; however, they vary in targeted child population. Furthermore, they vary substantially in funding levels. For example, 9 of the 12 programs obligated less than $500 million each in fiscal year 2010, while the largest program, Head Start, obligated $7.2 billion in that year.
Purposes and Targeted Populations of Federal Programs That Have Early Learning or Child Care as an Explicit Program Purpose
Program name by federal agency
Specific child population targets
Explicit program purpose
Other population limits
Early learning services
Child care services
Children under 5 primarily
Larger age group, including children under 5
Children with disabilities
Other targeted populations
Department of Education
Child Care Access Means Parents in School
Indian Education-Grants to Local Educational Agencies
Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge
Special Education-Grants for Infants and Families
Special Education-Preschool Grants
State Fiscal Stabilization Fund - Education State Grants, Recovery Act
Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy
Department of Health and Human Services
Child Care and Development Block Granta
Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds of the Child Care and Development Funda
Department of the Interior
Indian Child and Family Education (FACE)
General Services Administration
The General Services Administrations Child Care Program
Source: GAO analysis of Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and federal agency program information.
Note: All programs included in this table are those for which early learning or child care is explicitly described as a program purpose, according to GAOs analysis of Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and other agency information. It does not include additional programs that either support early learning or child care or that allow such services. All programs GAO identified are listed in appendix III.
a In combination, Child Care and Development Block Grant funds and Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds are referred to as the Child Care and Development Fund.
However, the majority of the 45 programs GAO identified do not have the explicit purpose of delivering early learning or child care services, but rather permit use of funds for this purpose or provide supportive services to facilitate such care.
In addition to these federally funded programs, five federal tax provisions support early education and care by forgoing tax revenue to subsidize the private purchase of child care services. Some tax provisions are for families and some are for employers that provide child care at the workplace. These five tax expenditures accounted for at least $3.1 billion of forgone tax revenue for the U.S. Treasury in fiscal year 2010. The revenue that the government forgoes through tax expenditures can be viewed as spending channeled through the tax system, contributing to mission fragmentation and program overlap. As GAO previously reported in September 2005, coordinated reviews of tax expenditures and related programs may reduce fragmentation and overlap. While it may be possible for some families to receive benefits through both tax provisions and federal early learning and child care programs in a particular year, many families eligible to participate in federal programs may not have tax liabilities due to their low incomes and would not benefit from these tax provisions.
Although some programs fund similar types of services for similar populations, differing program structures, eligibility requirements, and data limitations create obstacles to assessing whether actual duplication exists among these programs.
To the extent that programs in different agencies have similarities, fragmentation and program overlap can create an environment in which programs may not serve children and families as efficiently and effectively as possible. The existence of multiple programs can also create added administrative costs, such as costs associated with determining eligibility and meeting varied reporting requirements. However, despite some overlap in program purposes and targets, it is likely that service gaps exist, since these programs generally are not designed as entitlements that serve all eligible children. For example, as GAO previously reported in May 2010, about one-third or fewer of potentially eligible children received child care subsidies from CCDF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the Social Services Block Grant between fiscal years 2004 and 2007, according to GAOs review of several HHS estimates. HHS has identified improving program access and quality as high-priority performance goals for both Head Start and child care programs.
Coordinating the administration and evaluation of early learning and child care programs can help mitigate the effects of program fragmentation and overlap and potentially help bridge service gaps; however, there is currently no federal interagency workgroup that coordinates early learning and child care efforts across all federal agencies with such programs. Education and HHS have numerous coordinating initiatives and agreements with each other, within their departments, and in support of state and local coordination. For example, Education and HHS formed an interagency policy board in August 2010 whose goals included improving the quality and effectiveness of Education and HHS early learning programs; increasing the coordination of research, technical assistance and data systems; and, in an advisory role, maximizing resources. In 2009, HHS established an executive-level liaison office to coordinate interagency efforts, and Education proposed establishing a similar coordination office in 2011. Education and HHS have also collaborated in jointly administering the Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge. In addition, the two departments have supported early learning and child care coordination at the state and local levels, such as through State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care and other early childhood programs. HHS has also established workgroups and collaborative efforts with several other individual federal departments, such as Agriculture, Defense, and HUD, to increase the availability and quality of child care or for other goals. However, these workgroups do not bring multiple agencies together, and GSA, the Departments of the Interior, Justice, Labor, and the Appalachian Regional Commission also have programs with some child care component that are not part of broader cross-agency initiatives but could likely benefit from the expertise of Education and HHS.
The GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) could serve as a vehicle for furthering interdepartmental coordination of early learning and child care. The Act established a new, cross-cutting, and integrated framework for achieving results and improving government performance. Among other things, each agency is to identify the various federal organizations and activitiesboth within and external to the agencythat contribute to its goals, and describe how the agency is working with other agencies to achieve its goals as well as any relevant crosscutting goals. The executive branch and Congress could use this process to identify and address program areas where strengthened interagency coordination is needed to better achieve results as well as areas of fragmentation, overlap and duplication.
In identifying these programs, the criteria GAO used were that these programs (1) fund or support early education or child care services, (2) are provided to children under age 5, and (3) deliver services in an educational or child care setting.
GAO considers a program as having an explicit early learning or child care purpose when the program objectives in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance or other agency documents refer to early learning or child care.
This figure excludes American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 funds. Pub. L. No. 111-5. See appendix III for information on fiscal year 2010 program obligations for early learning and child care programs.
GAO has described the fragmentation and overlap of these and other nutrition assistance programs in Domestic Food Assistance: Complex System Benefits Millions, but Additional Efforts Could Address Potential Inefficiency and Overlap among Smaller Programs, GAO-10-346 (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 15, 2010).
Two of the five tax expendituresExclusion Of Benefits Provided Under Cafeteria Plans and Exclusion of Income Earned by Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Associationsinclude revenue used for health care and other benefits besides child care.
In September 2005, GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, develop and implement a framework to review tax expenditures. In March 2011, GAO reported that OMB, in its fiscal year 2012 budget guidance, instructed agencies, where appropriate, to analyze how to better integrate tax and spending policies that have similar goals and objectives. See Government Performance and Accountability: Tax Expenditures Represent a Substantial Federal Commitment and Need to Be Reexamined, GAO-05-690 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 23, 2005), and Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, GAO-11-318SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 1, 2011).
These tax provisions primarily benefit families with higher incomes than those eligible for CCDF or Head Start. For example, more than half of the beneficiaries of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit earned incomes of at least $50,000 annually in fiscal year 2009. In contrast, the Child Care and Development Fund generally limits eligibility to families at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (that is, about $37,000 or less for a family of 3 in 2011), and Head Start eligibility is closer to 100 percent of the poverty guidelines.
Preliminary fiscal year 2009 data are the latest available for number of children served under CCDF.
As GAO noted in earlier work, tax returns generally do not collect information necessary to assess how often a tax expenditure is used and by whom unless the IRS needs the information or collection is legislatively mandated. See GAO-05-690.
The Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007 required the governor of each state to designate or establish State Advisory Councils, and funds provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 were used to support them. Pub. L. No. 110-134, § 11(b) (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 9837b(b)(1)(A)) and Pub. L. No. 111-5, 123 Stat. 115, 178.
 Pub. L. No. 111-352 (2011).The federal investment in early learning and child care is fragmented in that it is administered through 45 programs that provide or may support related services to children from birth through age 5, as well as five tax provisions that subsidize private expenditures in this area. The programs are concentrated within the Departments of Education (Education) and Health and Human Services (HHS)the principal administrators of the federal governments early learning and child care programsbut are also administered by the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the General Services Administration (GSA), and the Appalachian Regional Commission. 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. 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.
As the principal administrators of the federal governments early learning and child care programs, and consistent with Educations and HHSs identification of early learning access and quality as priorities, the Secretaries of Education and HHS should
Using the GPRAMA framework, workgroup goals could include mitigating the effects of program fragmentation (for example, through simplifying childrens access to these services), identifying and managing service gaps, meeting data requirements for the coordinated operation and evaluation of these programs, and identifying and minimizing any unwarranted overlap. These efforts could also provide a vehicle to conduct a coordinated analysis of child care tax expenditures and program spending.
The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section as well as additional work GAO conducted. GAO searched the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance to identify federal early learning and child care programs; obtained supplementary information from Education, HHS, and other agencies; and reviewed previous GAO reports on early learning and child care. GAO did not conduct a separate legal review to identify and analyze relevant programs. In its work, GAO identified 45 early learning and child care programs that met its criteria for analysis: those that (1) fund or support early education or child care services; (2) are provided to children under age 5; and (3) deliver services in an educational or child care setting. GAO also identified a subset of 12 programs with early learning and child care as an explicit program purpose. GAO determined that the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance was sufficiently reliable for GAOs purposes by confirming with federal agency officials that the programs identified met GAOs criteria and obtaining information from agencies about any additional programs for GAO consideration. GAO searched the Congressional Research Services 2010 Tax Expenditures: Compendium of Background Material on Individual Provisions to identify five tax expenditures that met similar criteria for early learning and child care. GAO obtained and analyzed descriptions of Education and HHS coordination efforts for early learning and child care programs, but assessing the effectiveness of these two particular agencies coordination efforts was beyond the scope of this study. See pages 371-373 of the PDF version of this report (appendix III) for a list of the programs GAO identified that may have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation may not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified. See page 374 of the PDF version of this report (appendix III) for a list of related tax expenditures.
GAO provided a draft of this report section to Education, HHS, and OMB. HHS provided written comments. Education and OMB, as well as HHS, provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.All three agencies agreed on the importance of further coordination of the federal programs supporting early learning and child care. Education explicitly agreed with GAOs recommended action and identified an existing interagency workgroup as a means of coordinating early learning and child care services. This group currently focuses primarily on services for youth from early to late adolescence. HHS acknowledged but did not explicitly agree or disagree with the specific action GAO recommended, while OMB questioned the need for a new interagency working group and the efficiency of including agencies whose programs are not explicitly designed to deliver early learning or child care services. GAO believes that agencies with some, but not extensive, investment in early learning or child care might benefit greatly from such inclusion to reduce any effects of fragmentation. Extending interagency coordination could be efficiently accomplished through an existing workgroup on early learning and child care, for example, by establishing a subcommittee with representation from the additional agencies. GAO has modified the recommended action to clarify that inclusion of these additional agencies does not necessarily entail establishing a new federal interagency workgroup.
HHS also highlighted information on its ongoing coordination efforts and noted concerns with the reports treatment of specific issues. Specifically, HHS stated that the report did not fully explore how program services may be complementary rather than duplicative, take into account that many states jointly administer flexible funding streams to provide services to children and families, or adequately explain the distinction between federally funded early learning and child care programs and federally funded programs that permit the use of funds for the provision of child care. As noted in this report, the complexity of the current service delivery system, combined with data limitations, form significant obstacles to assessing the extent to which services are complementary or duplicative. GAOs report acknowledges the role that states play in coordinating these programs but, as HHSs comments indicate, the extent to which states coordinate the administration of early learning and child care funding streams can and does vary. Moreover, the federal government also has an important role in program administration, necessitating a federal role in coordination. Further, GAO clearly distinguished between programs that have an explicit purpose to provide these services, like CCDF and Head Start, and those that permit the use of funds for these services or that provide supportive services to facilitate such care; however, it remains important to note that some of the latter group, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families nonetheless provide significant funding for child care.
OMB recommended that GAO remove two programs from the list of programs with an explicit early learning or child care purpose; however, GAO did not change the program list because the programs met GAOs criteria.
As part of its routine audit work, GAO will monitor the progress agencies make in addressing this needed action and report to Congress. All written comments are reprinted in appendix IV of the PDF version of this report.
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