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Child care center ratings
Children play with materials at Highway 90 Daycare in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Owner Sherrie Jones has relied on private help to make improvements to her center. Credit: Jackie Mader

LELAND, Miss. — When new mom Elizabeth Harris needed to find childcare, she turned to other parents in this small Delta town. She and her husband narrowed down their options to one of two childcare centers they heard were “higher quality” than others.

Harris said she didn’t know what that meant at the time and had no information besides recommendations from friends. Harris believes her now 1-year-old son “is loved” at the center she and her husband selected, and to which they pay $600 a month for childcare, but worries that certain aspects are missing as the little boy grows, including a bigger focus on healthy eating and literacy.

“I want there to be more education in his day care experience,” Harris said. “How do we learn words and increase vocabulary? He’s at the stage, at 1, where that’s happening really fast.”

Answers to these concerns are not easy to come by in Mississippi. There’s no accessible, inexpensive way to see state-issued reports to find out how clean and safe child care centers are. Unlike at least 20 states, Mississippi does not post its reports on child care centers online. That means parents like Harris may not be aware of pending complaints against a child care center or reports of state inspections, or how to access them.

Although Mississippi’s Department of Health inspects all licensed centers twice a year for safety and health and keeps track of complaints, records are kept on paper and are available only through a public records inquiry — one that involves printing an online form, filling it out, and mailing it to the Department of Health.

“Inspection reports are not online because we don’t have the capability to put them online,” said Liz Sharlot, director of the Mississippi State Department of Health Office of Communications.

Many parents are unaware this information exists at all.

A reporter from The Hechinger Report visited a health department office in Belzoni in November 2014 to request a copy of an inspection report for a local center; a worker on duty said she was unaware that the forms existed — and that no parent has ever requested them.

In July 2014 The Hechinger Report requested data on Mississippi’s 1,757 licensed centers, intending to create an online database of inspection reports, in the belief that the public should have access to information on child care centers that receive state funds. The Department of Health initially said it would cost $26,527 to prepare and copy these records.

Related: Mississippi, let parents have information about child care centers

In August 2014, Hechinger adjusted its request; the state quoted $8,627 for reports and complaints from only one of the nine health department districts in the state. After Hechinger filed a complaint with the state’s ethics commission, that estimate was reduced to $3,742.64. Hechinger is ordering the smaller number of reports, despite the high price tag.

Unlike at least 20 states, Mississippi does not post its reports on childcare centers online.

Sharlot of Mississippi’s Department of Health said that the department would “not charge a member of the public” if a records request for a small number of named child care centers was submitted.

“A member of the public doesn’t say ‘we would like to have all the inspection reports from all the child care centers,’” Sharlot said.

Sharlot declined to speculate whether there is a limit to the number of reports a parent could request, whether, for instance, a parent could receive 20 reports for free.

“I’ve never had a parent ask for 20 centers,” Sharlot said.

Christine Thompson, whose 4-year-old daughter Ashleigh used to be in day care, said in future child care searches, she would like to see the inspection reports.

She found Ashleigh’s last child care facility by driving around to look for centers close to her job, and then visiting them.

“I look at the security, how clean it is. Does it smell like diapers?” said Thompson, who took her daughter out of day care when she started college classes and had time to watch her during the day. She said she also would ask about the staff’s education level, the curriculum, price, and food.

Expectant mom Stephanie Parkinson said she and her husband visited five centers before finding one that meets their requirements on aspects like student diversity and quality. Initially, Parkinson looked online to find a center that was nationally accredited. Unfortunately, only 36 childcare or pre-school programs in Mississippi are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC. None are in Jackson or its immediate suburbs.

Parkinson said the couple put “a lot of trust in friends,” and used information they found on a child care center website to determine what to look for during visits. “I think the important thing,” Parkinson added, “was we left ourselves enough time to really look.”

After parents identify good centers, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to enroll their children. Justin Cook, who manages a restaurant in Jackson, said the “good ones” are hard to get into because of lengthy waiting lists.

Related: Why did Mississippi lose out on preschool funding — again?

Signs of Quality

Parents should look for several traits when evaluating the quality of a child care center, said Peter Pizzolongo, associate executive director of professional development solutions for NAEYC. For example, he said, teaching should be based on a curriculum proven to prepare children for school, but children should also have opportunities to play and explore their surroundings.

“I think that more information helps you demand better. And, it helps you advocate collectively for better.”

In addition, there should be frequent communication between the center and families, and furniture and materials should be “child-safe and child-sized,” he said.

How staff members speak to children matters as well, Pizzolongo added. “If the staff are just walking around the room saying ‘stop that, don’t do that, leave her alone,’ if they’re policing rather than interacting with the children…that’s a low quality program.”

Debbie Ellis, who runs a child care center in Greenwood and oversees a coalition of licensed child care providers in the Delta, said that quality practices are lacking in many child care centers, and subpar centers remain open.

“I have seen cases where I thought ‘this would not be a place I would want my child or grandchild to attend,’” Ellis said. “I have seen cases where there were no qualified personnel…where there were improper transportation methods.”

In addition, Ellis said, the state is filled with unlicensed centers in private homes that are exceeding the number of children allowed under Mississippi law. Centers enrolling six or more unrelated children are required to have a license.

And while Ellis says many childcare centers have closed due to a lack of funds, she couldn’t name one that has been shut down for poor health or safety. She worries that the lack of oversight puts children at risk and gives child care workers across the state a bad reputation.

“It impacts everyone,” Ellis said. “It hurts all of us. It makes us all look like we’re not caring properly for children.”

Apart from the state’s inspection reports, the only way child care center quality is assessed is through a voluntary rating system in which less than 40 percent of centers in the state participate.

The center to which Harris sends her son participates in the rating system. Although it considered one of the better centers in her community, online records from the Mississippi Department of Human Services show it earned only one out of five stars on its 2013— 2014 rating. The center has set a goal of achieving a three-star rating in the future.

Child care owners and advocates say improving the quality of staff members is a big challenge. The average childcare worker in Mississippi makes about $18,000 a year, often with no benefits.

If staffers earn a higher degree, child care centers face an additional obstacle: They may not have the money to pay those staffers more. Carol Burnett, executive director of the nonprofit Mississippi Low-Income Child Care (MLICCI) Initiative, said that many centers encourage staff members to pursue higher education, then lose them to higher-paying jobs in federally funded Head Start centers or state-funded pre-k centers.

Some states, like North Carolina, have tried to improve child care worker qualifications by offering salary stipends for those who pursue higher education and commit to staying for a specific amount of time.

And states like Florida and Wisconsin reported success in retaining more educated child care workers after adopting similar programs to reduce turnover and support continued education of early childhood teachers.

Without a similar program in Mississippi, as well as more help for child care centers that want to improve, it may be impossible for centers to get better, said MLICCI’s Burnett

“Everybody wants to talk like you can wave a magic wand and make quality pop up everywhere,” Burnett said. “But the truth is, it costs money to do it and you have to figure out how to help people have the money so they can do it, or you have to find a way to measure quality so it doesn’t price people out.”

New mother Harris said that as her son gets older, she needs more information about both what makes a center high-quality and how to find one.

Harris said that giving parents easy access to information on childcare centers could ultimately lead to improvement.

“I think that [having] more information helps you demand better,” Harris said. “And, it helps you advocate collectively for better.”

Kayleigh Skinner and Sarah Butrymowicz contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in Mississippi.

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