Skip to main content

Early Childhood Learning and Child Care: Overview of Federal Investment and Agency Coordination

GAO-17-671T Published: Jul 13, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 13, 2017.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

Multiple federal programs may provide or support early learning or child care for children age 5 and under. Of these programs, GAO identified nine that describe early learning or child care as an explicit purpose. Fiscal year 2015 obligations for these nine programs totaled approximately $15 billion, with the vast majority of these funds concentrated in Head Start and the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF). GAO also identified an additional 35 programs that did not have an explicit early learning or child care purpose, but permitted funds to be used for these services. Additionally, GAO identified three tax expenditures that subsidized individuals’ private purchase of child or dependent care.

As GAO found in its prior work in 2012, some early learning and child care programs are fragmented, overlap, or have potential for duplication. Specifically:

  • Fragmentation. The federal investment in early learning and child care is fragmented in that it is administered through multiple agencies. The Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Education (Education), and the Interior (Interior) administer programs with an explicit early learning or child care purpose.
  • Overlap. Some programs with an explicit early learning or child care purpose overlap, given that they target similar beneficiaries, such as low-income children, or engage in similar activities. However, these programs often have different goals and administrative structures. 
  • Duplication. Some programs are potentially duplicative because they may fund similar types of services for similar populations. However, the extent to which actual duplication exists is difficult to assess due to differing program eligibility requirements and data limitations. 

HHS and Education have helped address these conditions through improved agency coordination, particularly by following leading practices for interagency collaboration, such as including all relevant participants. For example, in response to needed actions GAO identified in 2012, HHS and Education expanded membership of their inter-departmental workgroup on young children to include other agencies with early learning and child care programs. HHS and Education have also documented their agreements in a memorandum of understanding, dedicated staff time to promote the goals and activities of the workgroup, and issued joint policy statements. The resulting improvement in coordination has helped mitigate the effects of fragmentation and overlap, according to GAO’s analysis.

HHS, Education, and Interior assess performance for all nine programs with an explicit early learning or child care purpose. These agencies collect performance information that aligns with program objectives, and many programs examine common aspects of performance. However, the specific results agencies assess differ for a number of reasons. For example, some programs assess children only while they receive services, while other programs assess later impacts on children. 

Why GAO Did This Study

Millions of children age 5 and under participate each year in federally funded preschool and other early learning programs, or receive federally supported child care. Federal support for early learning and child care has evolved over time to meet emerging needs. In 2012, GAO reported that multiple federal agencies administer numerous early learning and child care programs.

GAO was asked to re-examine federal programs that provide or support early learning and child care. This testimony discusses the federal investment and agency coordination of these programs. It is based on GAO’s July 2017 report (GAO-17-463).  

For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or

Full Report

GAO Contacts

Office of Public Affairs


Child care programsChildrenChildren with disabilitiesEducationEducation program evaluationEligibility criteriaInteragency relationsPreschool educationPreschoolersSpecial educationTax creditTax expendituresGrant programsGrant monitoring