Child Care Lessons from the Military

Susan Phillips
May 21, 2000

The U.S. military provides child care—center-based, home-based and before and after school—for more than 200,000 children per day in more than 300 locations around the world. It is high quality care that meets uniform standards, and is of reasonable cost to the families that use it. That marks a dramatic change from the situation a decade ago, when one military official termed military child care a "disaster," and the "ghetto" of American child care.

In its report, "Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation's Child Care System," the National Womens' Law Center (NWLC) examines how military officials went about transforming the system, and what that means for policy-makers, advocates and government officials involved in improving the quality, cost and supply of child care outside the ranks.

"If the U.S. military can do an about-face and dramatically improve its child care system in a relatively short period of time, there is great hope for improving child care across the United States," said Nancy Duff Campbell, NWLC co-president. What it Takes to Rebuild a System
By looking first at the problems that faced the military's child care system in the 1980s, then at the events that led to a high-level commitment to change, and finally at the results, the NWLC makes it clear that replicating the military's success will require a high-level commitment to change; considerable investment of public funds; and a systematic approach to standards, including inspections to insure standards are met, and sanctions for providers who don't meet them.

Past problems in the system included surging demand, sparked in large part by the 1973 transformation to an all-volunteer service; unsafe or unsuitable facilities; no standards for group size or staff ratios; no rigorous inspection system; and untrained, poorly-paid workers who left the system so quickly that some centers had turnover rates of 300 percent per year.

The impetus to change came from a series of reports and congressional hearings exposing the situation, and then from passage of the Military Child Care Act of 1989.

Today, the Military Child Development Program takes a systematic and serious approach to providing childcare across the spectrum of family needs. Centers, family child care homes and before- and after-school programs are all linked through resource and referral services. Parents enter the system through a single point, and can find all the information and services they need there.

Basic standards for health and safety, staff-child ratios, staff training and other matters are established and enforced through unannounced inspections and swift sanctions in cases where problems are not fixed quickly. By encouraging staff to undergo continuous training, and by increasing wages as certain training benchmarks are reached, the system has established high standards of quality and reduced turnover—now about 30 percent annually system-wide. This policy has helped 95 percent of military child care centers to meet the high national accreditation standards of the National Association for the Education of Young Children—something only 8 percent of non-military centers have done.

Parent fees in the military centers are subject to a sliding fee schedule based on income; on average, fees are about 25 percent lower than those paid by civilians for comparable care.

In reviewing the reformation of the military child-care system, the report stresses that while the job of dramatically improving the system was enormous and complex, it did not prove impossible. One key to success, according to the study, is to acknowledge up front the seriousness of the problem, and the cost of failing to fix it. Once high-level policy makers became convinced that the failing child care system was jeopardizing workforce performance and military readiness, as well as affecting the welfare of the children, the impetus for finding solutions was created.

One key conclusion of the report is that the issue of affordability of child care should be addressed through a system of subsidies. The military uses a sliding fee scale that limits weekly fees to approximately 8 to 11 percent of income. Outside the military, a patchwork system of government programs provides limited assistance to a small percentage of low-income families. This is an area, the report concludes, where policy makers must be prepared to devote more resources to help subsidize families who cannot afford quality child care.

Similarly, the report notes that funding for military child care has climbed dramatically in recent years, and that the improvements could not have occurred without that investment. In 1989, before the enactment of the Millitary Child Care Act, the federal appropriation for military child care centers was $89.9 million. In fiscal year 2000, $257 million was appropriated for centers, $43 million to family child care homes, $38 million to before- and after-school care; and $14 million for resource and referral for a total of $352 million.

  • The National Women's Law Center conducts public policy research, advocacy, litigation and public education efforts to protect and advance the legal rights of women and their families, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women.

Susan Phillips is managing editor of Connect for Kids.