When it comes to making decisions about child care, parents in Mississippi don’t have many facts about the quality of centers other than a star-rating system in which participation is voluntary.
But more detailed information about all of the 1,757 state-licensed child care programs does exist. Mississippi Department of Health officials inspect each center at least twice a year and report violations. They also keep records of official complaints made against the centers by parents or other members of the community and the results of subsequent investigations. These reports are public records and should be available to anyone who asks for them.
The Hechinger Report has tried to get these records to use them in our own reporting, as well as provide this information to parents online in an easily searchable format.
Initially, we made a big request – all the inspection reports and all complaint investigations for all centers across the state in the past year. We were willing to pay for the information and give the department the time it needed to gather it. The reports are paper files kept in offices throughout Mississippi, although the department said it has asked the state legislature for money to store them electronically.
We were told in order to prepare the request, staff would have to conceal the names and social security numbers of children and copy these records at a cost of $26,527. We then asked for a smaller batch: Only the most recent investigations from one district — District Five, where Jackson is located — and the complaints from the past calendar year. The department said it would take an average of 45 minutes to prepare a report of about 10 pages for each of the district’s roughly 440 centers and 150 complaints and would cost $40 an hour – a minimum price tag of $8,627. This meant the price per report had doubled from the rate the agency quoted for our original request.
The Hechinger Report submitted a complaint to the Mississippi Ethics Commission about the high – and rising – cost of the estimates and is waiting for the group to rule on it.
The cost of getting these reports can quickly become too expensive for a parent to find out important information about child care centers. Although much of each report is a series of checklists, some pages can contain personal information about children. So no one is allowed to view the original reports, and they must always be copied with names blacked out.
A parent in Jackson has 223 child care centers from which to choose. If that parent wanted to see the most recent inspection report for a quarter of those centers, based on the estimates we received of copying costs and time required to read each report, it would cost more than $1,600. Based on those estimates, even to compare just two centers a parent would have to pay $70.
Finding quality child care is a crucial issue for working parents, who often end up giving a significant part of their incomes to these centers. The average median income in Mississippi is $41,664, the lowest in the country. The annual cost for a 4-year-old in a Mississippi childcare center is $4,312, according to Child Care Aware, a Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes quality care.
In its response to our complaint to the Ethics Commission, the health department focused on the volume of records we are requesting, arguing again that collecting them will be a lengthy task and offering some detail: “We would point out that all of the files are 2-hole punched at the top with metal fasteners, so it is somewhat time-consuming to remove papers from the files.”
We’re not sure when the commission will rule on our complaint, but the Department of Health has never disputed that people have a right to these records. We agree, and The Hechinger Report, along with our collaborator, The Clarion-Ledger, are determined to collect and analyze them in a meaningful and helpful way for the public.