WASHINGTON – Early childhood education programs in Native American communities need to expand child care and improve mental health services, members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said Wednesday.

At an oversight hearing, Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., told Lisa Smith of the Administration for Children and Families—a division of the Health and Human Services Department—that the agency’s early childhood education programs must be evaluated to ensure efficiency and effectiveness.

“I think early childhood is a huge bang for the buck,” Tester said. “We’ve got to make sure it’s a huge bang for the buck. In order to do that you have to evaluate and you have to track.”

The Administration for Children and Families funds programs intended to prepare children in tribal lands for school. These include home visitation to help families with young children deal with health, child abuse prevention and early childhood development.

According to the government, in 2010 approximately 77 percent of the Native American and Native Alaskan populations aged 25 or older had a high school diploma, compared to approximately 86 percent of the total U.S. population. In the same year, 13 percent of the Native American population had a bachelor’s degree compared to 28 percent of the U.S. population.

Native Americans also suffer higher rates of infant mortality, poverty and unemployment, and Native American families are more likely to experience violence and substance abuse, the children and families agency said.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., asked Smith what the federal government is doing to address mental health problems, which school principals from Heitkamp’s home state said is the top problem in public schools with a high Native American population. Often the kids’ problems stem from family violence and frequent transitions from school to school, Heitkamp said.

“You can talk about parenting but we have an immediate crisis situation we need to deal with,” she said.

But Smith countered that a shortage of trained professionals and a lack of funding for child care programs make it difficult.

“The whole area of mental health is front and center in so many ways but we just lack resources and the trained people, the skilled people for the ages of the children,” she said.

Certified teachers are in short supply on tribal lands as well, said Danny Wells, an administrator who heads up the Chickasaw Nation’s Division of Education. The Chickasaw Nation is based in south-central Oklahoma.

Wells said his education division has tried to give its students monetary incentives to pursue higher education and teaching jobs.

“It’s a challenge, it’s going to be a challenge, it’s been a challenge,” Wells said.