'Potential' fraud in early learning system may not stand up to scrutiny

Mrs. Mardigian's Kindergarten Class singing, "Take me out to the Ball Game" Go TIGERS"
Mrs. Mardigian's Kindergarten Class singing, "Take me out to the Ball Game" Go TIGERS"

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Allegations of "potential" fraud in Florida's early learning programs have served as the basis for repeated attempts at a legislative cure – including this year – but are melting away under scrutiny by investigators.

A December 2011 report by the state Office of the Auditor General alarmed lawmakers with projections that over a three-year period, parents with children in school-readiness programs could have used as much as $40 million worth of public-assistance benefits for which they were ineligible.

That set the stage for five bills dealing with early learning governance last year, which were merged into one – only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Now a second audit, completed last month, finds that the potential for fraud persists, and lawmakers are again gearing up to fix it – but according to the Department of Financial Services, which received 947 referrals from the Office of Early Learning in 2012, just 54 have been referred to state attorneys, while 539 were reviewed and closed due to lack of evidence. Fifteen were investigated and closed due to lack of evidence. The rest are still in process.

"The early learning coalitions and the Office of Early Learning have zero tolerance for fraud," said Harry Duncanson, the CPA who chairs the Early Learning Advisory Council. "I'm an auditor…It was just very disturbing to me how (the auditor general's report) was worded. While the report had accurate numbers and facts, the mischaracterization of it – especially the omission of some facts – led to a tremendous overreaction and definitely wrong conclusions."

The basis for the referrals was that the parents were committing public-assistance fraud by collecting unemployment benefits while their children were receiving subsidized child care in school-readiness programs.

"We identified potential matches that are potentially indicative of fraud," said Matthew Tracy, who presented the auditor general's report to the House Education Committee on Feb. 13.

But early learning professionals say the referrals ignored expanded eligibility granted by the Obama administration during the recession.

Lauren Faison, outgoing executive director of the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend, said if the parents' income is low enough, they can qualify for unemployment benefits and subsidized child care as long as they're looking for work.

"When you read the words closely, the auditor general says, "There might be fraud. There is potential fraud,' because (the auditors) don't understand the nuances of our programs," Faison said. "There are real instances where families are eligible for both. But nobody's going to dig down into that data, nobody's going to take a hard look.

"They just hear 'fraud' and they go off on this tangent."

Shan Goff, who took over the Office of Early Learning after its previous director, Mel Jurado, resigned in December, disagrees with this premise.

"(The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) provided guidance that States could amend their definitions of 'working' to include 'looking for work,' " Goff wrote in an email. "Florida did not amend their Child Care Development Fund Plan to include this provision or propose any changes to applicable administrative rules."

But according to Florida's approved 2009-2011 Child Care Development Fund Plan on the Office of Early Learning web site, "Other eligible populations include children who meet one or more of the following criteria: Children of working families whose family income at the time of initial eligibility does not exceed 150 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines and whose parent is deemed eligible for unemployment compensation benefits shall be eligible to receive school readiness services for a maximum of six cumulative months of services under this eligibility category."

Goff acknowledged that, "The use of the term 'fraud' may be an overstatement when describing cases in which funding from both the (school readiness) program and the (unemployment benefits) program was received."

She also noted that referrals to DFS can take as much as two years to resolve.

Another problem is that no one really knows to what extent the two benefits programs overlap, because the early learning system is unable to match the data – as the auditor general's office did – on a computer. There's no technical capacity to do it, because the Early Learning Information System (ELIS) is still not operational.

Goff told the House Education Committee that the early learning coalitions, which coordinate eligibility and service delivery, are "operating basically on paper."

She said ELIS is expected to be operational by September.

Early learning professionals, meanwhile, are frustrated that lawmakers continue to debate governance on what they consider an inflated premise while the state has a waiting list of 75,000 children – with thousands more expected to sign up if new dollars ever reduced the wait.

"The focus has got to be on the child," said Sam Bell, a lobbyist for the Children's Services Council, "the child we're trying to reach who doesn't know his name, who certainly is not going to be ready for kindergarten and certainly is destined to fail unless this program is beefed up and strengthened."