Analysis: Suit bodes ill for child care expansion

By Jeff Amy/The Associated Press

JACKSON — It seems crazy that to get the state Department of Human Services to negotiate with them, Mississippi’s child-care providers had to sue the agency.

But there was Assistant Attorney General Earl Scales, outside a Jackson courtroom last week, saying DHS was ready to invite opponents to the table to talk about concerns. When asked why DHS didn’t take that step until it was sued, Scales said the agency was only legally required to collect public comments.

The agency wants parents who get federal subsidies for child care to use finger scanners to sign in and out. Child-care operators don’t like the idea, in part because they believe it will cost them money. They filed suit after DHS skipped a required economic impact statement, forcing the agency to restart its rule-making process.

The legalistic outlook seems to exclude actual listening by the agency making the rules. If government is just going to ignore the comments and do what it wants anyway, what’s the point?

Scales said DHS would invite some opponents to the table to talk about concerns, which would be a step forward if the agency actually hears aggrieved members of the public. DHS had until recently been silent in the face of concerns, allowing opponents to whip up a frenzy.

All this would be a sideshow, except there’s a push on to expand state spending on preschool in Mississippi. And private child-care businesses are the avenue favored by many to deliver those services. It would be a lot cheaper than school districts essentially adding another grade, especially when many districts would have to build or retrofit classrooms for 4-year-olds.

The fuss over finger-scanning has gotten inflated by the economic pressure that private child-care operators face. The amount of federal money in the subsidy program has dropped and there are fewer vouchers to go around, making it hard for some child-care centers to stay open. They see finger-scanning as a back-door way to cut even more money from child care.

Child-care businesses probably would rejoice if Mississippi began plowing state money into their businesses to expand preschool opportunities. But if DHS is going to run that show, the agency and the business owners are not exactly building a cooperative relationship.

The private owners torpedoed Gov. Phil Bryant’s effort to move child care regulation from the Health Department to DHS in the 2012 Legislature. Many have derided DHS’ effort to improve child care quality through a star rating system. And they’ve not been much nicer to the Health Department, where operators are kicking back against requirements for safer vans and banning children from sleeping in playpens.

But many visions of a state child-care system see private operators working hand-in-hand with state-funded mentors to improve teachers’ interaction and instruction with their young charges. Child-care operators have worked with business-funded Mississippi Building Blocks, as well as the foundation-funded Gilmore Early Learning Initiative in Monroe County. In both cases, funders sweetened the pot by furnishing classrooms with educational toys and materials. It seems hard, though, to envision private operators and DHS joining together.

Some have suggested DHS doesn’t have to run early learning. Mississippi Building Blocks wants the job for itself. And Mississippi First proposes that the state Department of Education take charge of early childhood learning. But the Bryant administration’s child care work has been concentrated at DHS, an agency the governor directly controls.

A good step toward building cooperation might be honest talks over finger scanning. That means opponents might want to stop demonizing DHS, and DHS might want to help private child-care centers earn enough money to survive.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy