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The Military Child Care System Remains a Model for Improvement

The military child care system offers a model for providing high-quality, affordable, and accessible child care, as described in the National Women’s Law Center’s 2000 report, Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System, and 2004 follow-up report. The reports showed that the military child care system provides an example for the civilian child care sector to follow in addressing gaps in the quality and availability of child care. A new study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) demonstrates that the military is continuing to work to expand the supply of high-quality care and make it more affordable for families.

Department of Defense (DoD) officials told GAO that families, particularly those with infants, often had difficulty finding child care due to waiting lists at many on-installation child development centers and a limited supply of eligible off-installation child care. DoD plans to address this shortage by constructing new child development centers that will add over 21,000 on-installation child care spaces, according to the GAO report. It is also taking steps to expand the availability of off-installation child care by increasing coordination with community-based providers and helping them meet DoD quality standards.

GAO also reports that DoD is working to increase awareness and accessibility of child care options by establishing a centralized, military-wide system for requesting both on- and off-installation care. DoD plans to actively market this system to service members once it is fully implemented.

In addition, DoD is changing its fee policies to reduce variation in the amount families in the same income category pay for on-installation care, according to the GAO report. The military subsidizes the cost of care, with families paying fees that vary by income and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) determining the range within which services and installations must set those fees for on-installation care. In school year 2011, OSD revised the fee ranges for the first time since school year 2005 to account for inflation and increases in service members’ incomes and to reduce the variation for families in the same income category among and within services. OSD officials told GAO that within the next few years they plan to move toward a uniform fee policy across all services and installations, with a single fee per income category for installations in standard-cost areas and a single fee per income category for installations in high-cost areas.

In its efforts to improve its child care system, the military is once again demonstrating that its system is a model—not because it has achieved perfection, but because it continues to assess whether families’ child care needs are being met and to design strategies to better address those needs.