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Children's Voice Article, January 2001

Child Care: All That It Can Be?

The U.S. military offers an encouraging model.

By Nancy Duff Campbell

Just a decade ago, child care in the military was plagued by problems all too familiar to civilian families today. Demand for child care had surged as a result of demographic changes in the military's workforce that included more women and more families with two parents working outside the home. The services were no longer composed of mainly single men, but increasingly of career-oriented men and women with children.

But the military's child care system did not meet the needs of these families. Tens of thousands of children were on waiting lists for care. Many military families could not afford care, even if they could find it. Caregivers lacked training and were so poorly compensated they did not stay in the field long, and the quality of care suffered. The recruiting, retention, and performance of military personnel were affected, putting military readiness at risk.

If this state of affairs sounds similar to your own experiences with child care today, you'll be interested in what happened next. Prodded by congressional hearings and the enactment of the Military Child Care Act of 1989, the military achieved a remarkable transformation of its child care system. Its experience over the past 10 years holds important lessons for policymakers, child care providers, advocates, and others interested in improving child care nationwide.

In May 2000, the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) released a report, Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation's Child Care System, encouraging greater public investment in child care by demonstrating, through the military's successful experience, that it is possible to take an inadequate, fragmented approach to child care and turn it into a high-quality, coherent system that works for families regardless of income.

The concerns that made investing in child care for the military a high prior-ity-a desire for a stable workforce and for healthy child development-apply equally outside the military. By identifying and highlighting specific ways in which the military achieved its turnaround, NWLC hopes to encourage similar techniques in civilian settings to improve care in every state, for every child.

The Military Commitment

Some of the key lessons from the military's experience, described in greater detail in Be All That We Can Be, include:

Raising the quality of care. The military improved the quality of child care by developing basic standards-encompassing health and safety, staff-child ratios, staff training, and other matters-and by rigorously enforcing those standards through four unannounced inspections per year. On the civilian side, state standards vary considerably, and some programs are exempt from any protections.

Clearly, states could significantly increase the quality of care by measuring state standards against those established by outside experts, as well as by adopting the military's model of a rigorous, unannounced inspection program with meaningful sanctions for noncompliance.

Program accreditation. Today, more than 95% of military child care centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children-compared with 8% of civilian child care centers in the United States. Following the military's lead, states should provide, through grants or other incentives, more resources to help child care providers go beyond the mandatory minimum licensing requirements and meet higher accreditation standards.

Staff training and compensation. All children in military child care centers are cared for by staff who receive basic preservice training-compared with children in 31 states where no such training is required. Moreover, in military child care centers, caregivers receive systemic, ongoing training and compensation that is linked to achieving training milestones. Today, the entry-level wage for a military caregiver is nearly $8.00 an hour, increasing to $10.00 after core competency training-compared with the average wage for civilian caregivers in child care centers of only $7.40 an hour, and less than $5.00 an hour in civilian child care homes.

The result for the military is that it has reduced staff turnover at its child care centers from more than 300% annually to less than 30%. States should follow the military model to develop similar training and compensation strategies.

Affordability. To ensure personnel with the lowest incomes can afford child care, the military established fee schedules on a sliding scale based on family income and provided subsidies to family child care homes to help keep parent fees reasonable. On average, military families pay some 25% less per week than do civilian families for comparable center-based care.

In civilian care, a patchwork of government measures assists some families in meeting their child care expenses, but not adequately. For example, the Child Care and Development Block Grant reaches only 10% of children eligible under federal guidelines. Moreover, despite the fact that experts recommend low-income families above the federal poverty level pay no more than 10% of their income for child care (approximately what military families pay), 10 states in 1999 required a family of three at 150% of the poverty level to pay more than 10% of its income in child care copayments to receive a subsidy. In an additional nine other states, such a family was eligible for no subsidy at all.

State and federal policymakers should follow the military's example in making significant public resources available to help subsidize care for families who cannot afford to pay the full cost of quality child care.

Expanding availability. Although it made a conscious decision to focus initial efforts on the quality and cost of care rather than supply, the military estimates it currently meets about 58% of its child care need; and it has a plan with specific goals and timetables to reach 80% by 2005. No state provides subsidized, high-quality child care to anywhere near 58% of its families. Following the military model, the federal and state governments should continually assess need and develop plans to expand child care capacity.

Adding resources. The military could not have achieved its successes without a substantial increase in resources. Funds appropriated for military child care have climbed dramatically in recent years, from about $90 million before the enactment of the Military Child Care Act in 1989 to $352 million in FY 2000. Clearly, current funding levels are woefully inadequate to meet the need for civilian child care, especially for low-income families. The federal government and the states should recognize, as the military has, that increased funding for child care ultimately pays for itself in the stability of the workforce and the healthy development of children-and increase their investments dramatically.

Why Not All Families?

Why can't civilian families have the same quality of child care military families have? That's a question more than 50 newspaper editorials in almost every region in the country, including The New York Times, asked following the release of NWLC's report last May.

In the year ahead, NWLC plans to build upon this increased public awareness to urge policymakers to make the same commitment the military has made to improving civilian child care. NWLC welcomes contact from child welfare professionals, advocates, and policymakers in the states who are interested in bringing the lessons from the military's experience to bear on their work. With more than 70% of American women with children now in the paid workforce, and the demand for child care at an all-time high, the time is ripe for proven initiatives that will increase the quality, affordability, and availability of child care in this country.

Nancy Duff Campbell is copresident of the National Women's Law Center, Washington, DC. Copies of Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation's Child Care can be ordered from NWLC free of charge for a single copy or for $5 each for additional copies. The report can also be downloaded at, under Child Care.

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