Helen Blank

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–When military parents leave the armed forces or stop living on a base they often discover that the days of high-quality, affordable child care are over.

Just ask Major Heather Zwicker, a reservist and Air Force public affairs officer.

Six months ago, Zwicker’s two children were enrolled in a child care program on a military base in Hawaii that cost $173.50 a week. The price covered all-day care for her 4-year-old son and after-school care for her 8-year-old daughter.

But Zwicker had to take her children out of the program when her husband, an active-duty intelligence officer, was reassigned to a job in Burke, Va. Because her new home is not on or near a military installation, she now takes her children to a private child care center close to her home and pays $440 a week–or more than twice as much–for all-day care for her son and for before- and after-school care for her daughter.

“I was very shocked,” she said, laughing in disbelief. “I couldn’t believe that it was so much more.”

But higher prices for civilian programs did not translate to better care, she said. Zwicker found the services so lacking in the first program that she recently switched to another.

A Model of Affordability

Once derided as the ghetto of U.S. child care, the military’s child care system is now routinely hailed as a model of affordability. But the civilian world is not following the military’s example of how to provide high-quality, affordable child care.

Even Linda Smith, a leading expert on child care facilities, says she is stunned at the cost of quality child care in the private sector.

“Most people leaving the military are in for a shock in terms of what’s outside the gate,” said Smith, executive director of the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, a network in Arlington, Va., that helps families find child care.

She had an “eye-opening experience” when she helped her daughter’s extensive hunt for quality private care. Unable to find an affordable program, Smith’s daughter eventually decided to fork over almost $24,000 to cover her two children for the year.

That’s far more than military parents pay for comparable care, Smith said.

Parents at Fort Belvoir, a base outside Washington, D.C., pay about $3,000 to $7,000 a year per infant, said Linda Bailey, a program operations specialist at the base’s child care center. Civilians would pay $11,000 to $13,000 per child per year for a similar private program.

While less than 10 percent of civilian programs are accredited, subsidies to military programs mean that almost all meet high accreditation standards, Bailey said.

Military child care started out as an hourly drop-in babysitting service at private nurseries in converted stables, Quonset huts, basements and attics, according to the Military Family Resource Center in Arlington, Va. As military demographics changed–with more women and married men serving in the armed forces–so too did the need for longer-term, high quality child care.

But that was hard to find on military bases, where parents confronted long waiting lists for expensive care, said Helen Blank, director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. Caregivers were not well trained and were poorly compensated, leading to high turnover. And child care facilities were deemed unsafe. In 1982, the General Accounting Office reported that the military’s child care program did not meet fire, safety and health standards.

Lawmakers Prodded Reforms

In the late 1980s, lawmakers, prodded by a series of allegations of child sexual abuse, held congressional hearings on military child care centers and eventually passed the Military Child Care Act of 1989, which ordered the Department of Defense to take a series of steps to improve its child care system.

It was a smart move for the Department of Defense, Blank said. Officials made the early connection that quality child care is critical to retaining employees and maintaining a ready defense. Officials also realized that investments in the children of military parents would pay off down the line as those children grew up and joined the armed forces, Smith said. A high percentage of new recruits, she noted, come from military families.

The military’s reforms won high praise, leading to a laudatory memo from President Clinton in 1997 describing the Pentagon’s child care system as a model for the rest of the nation.

The National Women’s Law Center agreed in a report released in 2000, which lauded the military’s establishment of a uniform certification and enforcement system, the creation of an accreditation system, and staff incentives such as training and wage increases.

A follow-up report released in August showed that the average wage in 2003 for a full-time, full-year civilian caregiver was $8.47 per hour, well below the entry-level wage of a military caregiver, which was between $9.34 and $13.24 per hour in 2004.

The law center’s report also found that the implementation of sliding-fee payment schedules and federal subsidies made military child care more affordable than private programs and praised an aggressive plan to increase child care facilities.

While some state governments have heeded the lessons of the military, critics say progress in the private sector has stalled or reversed, thanks to federal and state funding constraints and government inaction.

“What’s been sad to see is while the military program improved so radically, the rest of the country basically stood still,” Smith said.

The core problem has been a freeze on federal funding for child care programs since President Bush took office, Blank said, adding that state governments have not filled the consequent gap in funding with state money. “We basically have a system where we’ve been moving backwards over the last four years,” Blank added.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

National Women’s Law Center–
Be All that We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System, 2004 Follow-up:

National Women’s Law Center–
Be All That We Can Be: Lessons from the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System

Military Children and Youth:

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