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This article is the 11th in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

It started with a question: Can Mississippi parents find out how their children fare after being dropped off at child care centers?

The state’s scattered and uneven child care system is at the front lines of its long-term education woes, a first obstacle to economic prosperity that Mississippi has long been unable, or unwilling, to overcome. Education experts and advocates have repeatedly pointed out that children need a warm, stimulating environment in their early years, with well-trained teachers who encourage academic curiosity and social development. Success in school, college and, finally, in the workforce depends upon it.

But first, we started with that simple question, which led us to another: Are most Mississippi child care centers meeting the bare minimum of care? It was very difficult to get an answer — and the results were not encouraging.

Over the last two months, The Hechinger Report and The Clarion-Ledger published “Child Care Crisis,” a series of articles outlining the lack of funding, low-standards and weak enforcement of rules that plague the state’s child care system.

Related: Child Care Crisis: State’s weak oversight puts children in harm’s way in Mississippi

Along, the way, the obstacles we faced as we sought answers from the state taught us nearly as much about why problems persist as did our interviews with advocates and child care providers, our visits to child care centers, conversations with experts and research into the state of the industry nationwide.

The obstacles we faced as we sought answers from the state taught us nearly as much about why problems persist as did our interviews with advocates and child care providers, our visits to child care centers, conversations with experts and research into the state of the industry nationwide.

The quest began with a July 2014 request to the state’s Department of Health, seeking public records that would allow us to learn exactly how many centers were meeting state minimum standards.

At first, we asked for inspection reports and complaint investigations from the previous year for nearly 500 child care centers in the agency’s District Five, which includes Jackson, Yazoo City and Clinton. The health department tries to inspect each child care center twice a year.

These reports are legally public. Parents who request information for a single center would not be charged, according to the Department of Health. We quickly learned, however, that wider transparency with a more detailed request would come with a whopping price tag.

The health department estimated it would cost $8,812 for approximately 1,142 records. We reduced our request to a single, recent inspection report for each center and the complaint investigations for a year, cutting the number of records sought nearly in half.

The price didn’t drop accordingly, however. We were told our significantly smaller request would cost a minimum of $8,627, most of which covered the $40 per hour price tag of having health department employees pull and copy the documents.

Next step: We filed a complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission; it ruled in our favor, finding that the Department of Health could not charge us $40 an hour if a lower paid employee could do the work. We ended up paying roughly $20 an hour for the cost of labor.

Health department officials told us our request would be “detrimental” to children because it would take up time of licensing officials. Indeed, fulfilling the document request required hundreds of hours of staff time from Department of Health employees because the information exists only on paper, and employees had to locate and gather multiple files, copy them and redact any information exempt from the Public Records Act, such as social security numbers.

Related: Who should fix problems with Mississippi’s early childhood system?

Once we received the documents, we spent weeks entering the information into a computer-based spreadsheet so we could publish the inspection results as a service to parents, who have few if any sources of information about the child care centers in which their children are enrolled, or in which they are considering enrolling their children. You can look up your child care center here.

31 states put daycare inspection results online, a step that adds accountability for both the centers and the agency in charge of monitoring them.

Mississippi is not among the 31 states that put daycare inspection results online, a step that adds accountability for both the centers and the agency in charge of monitoring them. One study, out of Florida, suggests that having inspections online not only improves the quality of child care, but the quality of the inspections as well.

The week before the first article in our Child Care Crisis series was published, the health department began publishing online a list of centers that were observed with some of the most egregious violations during routine inspections. Now, the state’s Information Technology Department is working on building a more comprehensive online database for inspection results and will complete it in a few weeks, at which point the health department will begin the process of implementing it, according to health department officials.

We soon found out that not everyone wants this kind of information to be readily accessible to the public. Employees at one center told us that because the process for obtaining records is so lengthy, they assumed parents would never see them. A director at another center threatened to sue if we published information about a complaint made against it, even though the information was publicly available upon request.

While these center directors and some advocates had many strong opinions to share when we spoke to them, we struggled to find state officials or state groups—those with the power to make widespread improvements—with similarly passionate views on the subject.

The state legislature has paid little attention to child care. Since 2007, it has passed and the governor has signed only two bills exclusively focused on child care —and neither had anything to do with quality or safety.

Before we published our first article, we spoke with Gov. Phil Bryant’s office about our findings and shared examples of egregious complaints and inspections, including a report of a center that received no consequences for leaving one adult to watch 77 children. Officials in the governor’s office declined to comment, and did not respond to additional requests for comment as the series was published.

Related: The race problem in Mississippi daycares

As we continued our investigation, we discovered that there are many competing interests in the early childhood system. While some praised us for putting a spotlight on the problems facing the state’s most vulnerable children, we faced criticism from other advocates that publishing the public inspection reports was a disservice to center owners and families. Critics argued that writing only about centers with problems could dissuade some parents, leery of leaving their children in substandard care, from working at all. They also maintained the problems we found in a few daycare centers were not representative of all centers.

Yet more than 60 percent of the centers in our sample of the state’s most populated district violated at least one of the state’s minimum regulations. More than 10 percent had one of five major violations the health department’s website says may endanger children, such as “failure to maintain the minimum staff to child ratio, leaving children unattended, failure to conduct a background check, and lack of CPR/first aid training.”

Nearly everyone we interviewed for these articles, including center directors and owners, acknowledged that there are low-quality child care centers in the state. But critics worried focusing on problems would hurt an already beleaguered, under-resourced sector.

Others felt that avoiding mention of the problems would allow them to persist.

In our reporting we also looked for potential solutions, by focusing on effective programs. For example, our story about the model child care centers run by the Department of Defense demonstrated that real improvements can be made when flaws in the system are recognized and acknowledged, and when money is invested in building a stronger early childhood system.

Related: How the military created the best child care system in the country

Over the course of our work on the series, we found and published the views of experts, advocates, and child care workers who had dozens of ideas for how the state can fix persistent problems with the oversight and support of Mississippi’s child care centers, such as:

  • Increasing funding to the state’s child care assistance program so more children can get tuition assistance, more parents can go to work, and centers can receive higher reimbursement rates.
  • Making early education a legislative priority.
  • Offering more training for owners and staff at child care centers, preferably in the centers themselves, so employees can increase knowledge and skills without missing work.
  • Helping child care centers make low-cost changes by providing training in “healthy sleep,” sanitary practices, and appropriate interactions with children.
  • Revisiting state regulations and inspection standards and including educational goals alongside safety requirements, as many other states have done.
  • Posting the results of child care inspections online in a timely manner so parents have access to information when making decisions about where to enroll their children.
  • Making sure child care inspectors receive the training they need to be fair, consistent, and thorough when inspecting centers.
  • Offering pathways to higher educational levels for child care employees and providing higher wages for those employees.

This marks the end of our weekly installments of this series. We’ll continue to monitor the state of child care in Mississippi, and will publish additional stories that we hope will contribute to a vital, ongoing public discussion. We hope you will send us your comments and op-eds, offering your thoughts and ideas both on our work on this series, and, of more importance, on what can be done to improve early education across the state.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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