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Mississippi parents will have to scan their fingerprints every time they drop off and pick up their children at daycare when a new program goes into effect next year. But childcare providers have been protesting the system for months, saying that it stigmatizes low-income families and may ultimately take away income from already cash-strapped centers.

Mississippi daycare
Child care providers in Mississippi say the new attendance system may discourage low-income parents from enrolling their children in daycare. (Photo by Kim Palmer) Credit: Kim Palmer

On Wednesday, the House and Senate Investigate State Offices Committee listened to concerns from a representative of the non-profit Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, reports The Clarion-Ledger, in what has become a contentious battle between child care centers and the state government.

Under the new system, Mississippi eChildcare, parents who receive child care vouchers from the state will have to scan their fingers so the state can track their children’s attendance at daycare and preschool. Childcare providers say they fear that the fingerprint scanners could lead to a payment system in which the state would only reimburse them for the time a child is at their center. Providers say costs to run a center and pay staff remain constant even when children are absent.

The system has already been piloted in 20 childcare centers in the state, and was supposed to expand to 38 counties on Nov. 1 and the remaining 42 counties on Feb. 1. In October, a state judge placed the system on hold because the Mississippi Department of Health (DHS) failed to publish a required economic impact statement on time. That statement was published in late October.

The Department of Health has contended that the main use of the system is to better track attendance of children receiving federal vouchers for childcare and reduceattendance related payment errors.” In the released economic statement, the state said it could save up to $18 million annually by reducing false attendance claims by childcare providers.

“If we have a family that’s putting their child in care for half a day a week, that’s something we’ll look at,” Jill Dent, director of Mississippi’s Division of Early Childhood Care and Development, told Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “We won’t necessarily jump up and go cut them off, we just want to be able to make sure that we’re serving the people that need the services the most.”

Wednesday’s committee meeting was the latest concession childcare providers were able to extract from the state. On Oct. 12, after petitioning and being granted a public hearing, the providers received a letter from DHS saying they would extend the pilot period to allow the Division of Early Childhood Care and Development and Xerox, the company which has provided the fingerprint scanners to “explore strengthening the process.” Training sessions for childcare centers on how to use the new system were also cancelled on that date. On Oct. 24, a state judge put the program on hold and ordered DHS to release the economic impact statement and sit down with childcare providers to hear their concerns.

Carol Burnett, executive director of the non-profit Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, says the new system will make it more difficult for families to access early education in a state where the need for it is great. There are currently more than 8,000 Mississippi children on a waiting list to receive vouchers for childcare. The state’s median income is $24,000, and childcare costs without vouchers can account for up to 26 percent of a single mother’s salary, according to Child Care Aware of America, a non-profit childcare advocacy organization.  And while many say early childhood education could be the first step to closing the achievement gap for the many disadvantaged children in Mississippi, childcare in the state’s 1,700 centers varies in quality and lacks uniform educational standards.

In current pilot sites, enrolling in the eChildcare system has been a lengthy process for families. According to a two-page letter from DHS, parents must first obtain an email address, watch an online training video, and then attend training at a local DHS county office before they can sign up their child. When neighboring Louisiana instituted the same system in August 2010, the number of families receiving vouchers dropped 35 percent.

Burnett fears the same will happen in Mississippi, especially among parents who need quality childcare the most. “[The] imposition on the parents is pretty heavy in light of the fact that they’re in low-wage paying jobs that don’t have much flexibility,” Burnett said. “The logistics of it are just crazy.”

Sen. Albert Butler, the committee’s Senate chairman, told The Clarion-Ledger that the committee is “empowered to make sure procedures are followed” as DHS moves forward with the system. The Department of Health will hold another public hearing on Nov. 16 to hear responses to the economic statement. The system is now estimated to begin rollout in February.

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