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This article the fifth in a series investigating the child care system in Mississippi.

JACKSON, Miss. — A bill to create an interagency council to oversee early education programs passed the Senate’s education committee Feb. 17. The full Senate has until March 3 to vote on the proposal.

The bill’s author, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, hopes it will break the cycle of legislative inaction on the state’s child care system. The bill is one of a dozen pieces of legislation proposed this session aimed at improving the quality of child care or making it more affordable for parents.

Hechinger Report and Clarion-Ledger joint investigation found that many child care centers fail to meet minimum regulations for health and safety and do not receive help from the state to improve conditions. Center directors struggle to deal with the bureaucracy of multiple agencies.

Lack of funding for child care subsidies has forced many parents who have trouble affording care to make tough choices and left many centers with tight budgets.

Many experts, advocates, and legislators acknowledge there have long been problems in the state’s child care system. But in the last decade most bills designed to improve child care in the state have lacked significant legislative or gubernatorial support.

Nonprofit and state-funded groups are working to improve child care centers, but the onus for real change is on the Capitol, said Rhea Williams-Bishop, executive director of the Center for Education Innovation and a member of the State Early Childhood Advisory Committee, a governor-appointed group that recommends improvements in early education to policymakers.

“Making recommendations is fine and good,” Williams-Bishop said. “But it’s up to the governor and his staff members and the legislature to make the policies necessary to move early childhood forward.”

The governor has yet to comment on whether he would support any of the child care bills proposed this session.

Advocates argue that improving early education is vital for a state that is regularly one of the lowest performers on national assessments. In 2014, nearly two-thirds of Mississippi kindergarteners failed to meet state benchmarks on a kindergarten readiness assessment.

“Now the results of the kindergarten readiness [assessment] have come about, people understand now the importance of early education,” Wiggins said. “The will of the legislature is to get these agencies to work together and get out of their silos.”

Multiple agencies are involved in child care. Department of Health has primary control over the system. The agency develops regulations and oversees licensing for centers. The Department of Human Services has a Division of Child Care that oversees child care assistance for low-income families and provides training for child care centers. And the Department of Education has an Office of Early Childhood that provides centers with free training on its learning standards for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Wiggins’ bill would establish an “interagency coordinating council” consisting of representatives from the departments of Education, Health, and Human Services and the Head Start Collaboration Director from the governor’s office. The group would be in charge of coordinating all agencies and programs that work with preschool children, a category that includes privately run child care centers.

“The Department of Health, they don’t know anything about education curriculum,” Wiggins said. “Conversely, the Department of Education only knows about curriculum.”

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

Wiggins said he talks to child care providers who are frustrated that licensing officials can’t provide guidance on how to educate the children in their care; such information is outside the scope of the health department’s expertise. He said the proposed interagency coordinating council could help the governor and legislature develop requirements beyond basic health and safety rules.

Officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services said they couldn’t comment on pending legislation. An official from the Department of Education declined to comment.

Petra Kay, owner of Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, said an interagency council might complicate rather than simplify oversight. “Then, the question is, who would be in charge?” she said.

Instead, Kay said there should be a new agency in charge of preschool programs, which would relieve the Department of Health of its regulatory responsibilities and relieve the Department of Human Services of its oversight of child care assistance for low-income parents.

Related: For Mississippi parents, child care costs lead to tough choices

More than half a dozen bills proposed this legislative session address child care assistance, which is provided though a federal program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). The bulk of the funds help parents pay for a portion of child care tuition. The state must also spend a portion of that money on improving the quality of child care. In September 2015 the Department of Human Services helped subsidize child care for 20,293 children, but more than 7,000 parents looking for child care assistance have been wait-listed.

“It’s up to the governor and his staff members and the legislature to make the policies necessary to move early childhood forward.”

The department says it hasn’t evaluated applications on the wait list to determine eligibility because it has run out of funding. Advocates say the state could draw from another source to help more children and parents: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. Although the department is allowed to spend TANF money on child care support, in fiscal year 2014, it left $21.1 million  unspent, according to a report by Congressional Research Services.

Sen. Tammy Witherspoon, D-McComb, proposed a bill that would require previously unspent TANF money to go to child care assistance in fiscal year 2016.

Witherspoon, a preschool owner, is also one of three legislators who proposed a plan to create a “Child Care Advisory Council,” which would provide input to the Department of Human Services as it develops and implements a new plan for spending CCDBG funds.

The proposed council would consist of three parents who receive subsidies, one who does not, and eight child care providers.

“This is so they all can get together, so they can have input,” Witherspoon said. “So we can all have collaboration to see what works better for families and the children they serve.”

Mississippi child care regulations
Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, discusses the long term benefits of implementing prekindergarten programs statewide during his presentation of the bill before the Senate at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. Credit: AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Another bill proposed by a group of representatives would create the Mississippi Foundation for Early Childhood Development, a public-private partnership that would award grants to child care centers to improve quality and to low-income parents to help pay for care. The bill has been introduced every year since 2008, but has never made it out of committee.

While these bills seek to expand support or make funding for child care more flexible, Senate bill 2117, introduced by Sen. Angela Burks Hill, R-Picayune, would place multiple restrictions on TANF eligibility, including restrictions on child care subsidy recipients. New hurdles proposed in the bill include periods of ineligibility for TANF benefits and child care subsidies for parents who demonstrate “noncooperation with child support services.”

The bill would also limit child care assistance to individuals studying for degrees or certifications that have “at least an average job outlook listed in the Occupational Outlook Handbook of the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of labor Statistics.” Assistance for those preparing for occupations that have a “less than average job outlook” would require approval by the department.

Kay, from Northtown Child Development Center, said adding restrictions would hurt children who rely on the assistance. “I would like for the politicians who support this bill to come with me for one day and go into the homes of TANF recipients,” Kay said. “It would be such an eye opener into what conditions people live in.”

Tuesday is the deadline for committees to decide which bills advance to a vote in their respective chambers, the House of Representatives or the Senate. The deadline for the full chamber to vote on general bills is March 3 and on appropriations and revenue bills is March 16.

Bills proposed in the 2016 Legislative session that would impact child care

Bills dealing with early education:

SB Bill 2274 would create an “Interagency Coordinating Council” to coordinate programs that work with prekindergarten children.  The council would include representatives from the Governor’s office and the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Education.

SB Bill 2456 would “authorize and direct the state Department of Education to adopt multiple measures to determine a minimum rate of readiness for prekindergarten providers under the Early Learning Collaborative Grant program.”

HB 1032 would create the Mississippi Foundation for Early Childhood Development. The foundation would give grants to help low-income families access early childhood development programs and to help child care centers improve quality.

HB 1092, among other things, would require child care centers participating in the universal prekindergarten program to meet certain standards like using nationally recognized assessments that are approved by the Department of Education.

Bills dealing with child care affordability:

SB 2117 would make a number of changes/restrictions to TANF. Some of those would limit under what circumstances TANF money could be used for child care.

SB Bill 2223 would give tax credits to families for their child care expenses, if they attend a pre-K program that participates in the Early Learning Collaborative.

SB 2734 would require the Department of Human Services to expand child care assistance for low-income families by up to $40 million.

HB 1082, SB 2594 and SB 2733 would create a “Child Care Advisory Council” to advise the Department of Human Services on the Child Care and Development Block Grant state plan.

HB 756 and SB 2594 would create scholarships for single mothers enrolled in community college or universities, which could also be used for child care expenses.

HB 254 and 273 would use unspent TANF funds to help nursing students pay for educational and child care expenses.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. In the coming weeks, this series will look at unlicensed daycare centers and at solutions to the child care problem for Mississippi and other states.

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