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Mississippi has started a pilot program for low-income families that get help paying for day care. The state has started using biometric finger scanners to record attendance. It says the technology will save the state millions of dollars. But NPR's Kathy Lohr reports many parents and day care providers aren't happy about it.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Here's how it works. The state scans parents' fingerprints to capture biometric information. That information is turned into a number. Then at a day care center, there's a pad where you place your index finger and a small keyboard that records the exact time a child is checked in or out.
KIM KIMBROUGH: You have to come over here and you press F2, then it asks you to scan your finger.
LOHR: At Northtown Child Development Center in Jackson, Kim Kimbrough checks in her 3-year-old son and gets a receipt before she heads to her job at a furniture store.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRINTER)
LOHR: Kimbrough says her friends who used to help pick up her child are hesitant to sign up.
KIMBROUGH: And a lot of people don't want to go down there and get fingerprinted because they feel it's a hassle. They don't like the idea. I really don't like it. But if that's what I have to do to stay on child care, I'll do it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Good morning, class.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Good morning, class.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. Let's get our listening ears on.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Let's get our listening ears on.
LOHR: More than half a dozen 3- and 4-year-olds are seated at a low desk surrounding their teacher at Northtown where they're just beginning the day's lessons. The state's early child care program provides vouchers to low-income parents to help cover the cost of day care so parents can work or go to school. More than 18,000 Mississippi children are enrolled in the program and another 8,000 are on a waiting list.
Many daycare administrators say finger scanning is unnecessary; that if parents refuse to do it, some centers would lose children and could close. They say they're forced to single out those who are receiving aid and set up a new sign-in process just for them.
CAROL BURNETT: Providers feel that it is going to be a hardship and discriminatory.
LOHR: Carol Burnett is director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, a nonprofit group.
BURNETT: The parents who have a subsidy have to come through and scan their finger at this machine, and the parents that aren't on the subsidy program don't have to do that. So you've got two lines of people who are obviously distinguished by who's got the subsidy and who doesn't.
LOHR: Across town at the Jamboree Child Development Center, parents are talking about just that. Catreennia Harris, a full-time student, tells the director here about her concerns.
CATREENNIA HARRIS: Because I have certificates, but, you know, you don't want everybody to know, you know, everything you do or everything you get. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And it's not like you're trying to stay on the system forever. It's just that you need help right now.
CATREENNIA HARRIS: You know, and you have to scan finger and everybody just, oh, yeah, that's - she's on certificate. I bet she's on welfare, and she gets food stamps, you know, all that. You know, just singling people out.
LOHR: But the state says the system will prevent fraud and save money. Officials say centers that may have falsified attendance won't be able to do that and are likely to drop out of the program. And children who have too many absences could lose their vouchers. The state spent $1.7 million to buy the equipment, and it will pay a subsidiary of Xerox nearly $13 million over five years to manage the system. Jill Dent is with Mississippi's Department of Human Services.
JILL DENT: Mississippi has always been just about the last in everything. So we're taking a step forward, and we want to be one of the first states that utilize technology to be able to push a state forward.
LOHR: Mississippi officials point to a similar program in Louisiana that started in 2010 that they say has been successful. Dent says her state will save at least 40 percent in administrative costs and another 25 percent on costs related to fraud. She rejects the idea that the system is discriminatory.
DENT: Directors can find a way to - if they want to do this differently in their center and keep the machine in a different room, they can do that. But if parents want to continue with the program, this is just part of the system.
LOHR: But in Mississippi, there's so much opposition that some centers have opted out of the pilot program. The finger scanning policy was set to take effect this month, but state officials now say they'll hold off on full implementation until next year. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.