ThinkProgress

The U.S. already has a high-quality, universal childcare program — in the military

Air Force Sgt. Stacia Zachary and her daughter Ava. CREDIT: AP Photo/Melissa Nelson

Tech Sgt. Parker and her husband always knew they wanted to have a big family. Today, they have five children between the ages of three and 16.

Multiply five by the typical cost of daycare, and they could have been looking at spending more than $190,000 over their children’s early years. Yet the cost of childcare never stopped them. Thanks to Parker’s 17-year career as a linguist for the Air Force, all of her children have been cared for in the military’s childcare system where she never has to pay more than about 10 percent of her income.

Parker’s experience with the childcare available on her base has been overwhelmingly positive. “When they come home, I’m like, ‘Wow, you guys learned all this today,’”she said of her children in the program.

In most daycare centers, turnover rates among providers are extremely high. Not in Parker’s. A woman who taught her 16-year-old when he was little is now teaching her youngest child. “It’s just amazing,” Parker said. “She’s been there forever.” Her eldest children still like to go back in and say hi to their former teachers.

“The childcare centers on post are pretty much like a second home for my children,” Parker said. “The teachers there are really invested in the kids.”

“The childcare centers on post are pretty much like a second home for my children.”

She knows how lucky she is. There were a few months when one of her children was put on a waiting list and Parker had to make use of off-base, private-sector childcare for six months.

“It was a real shocker, a big price difference,” she said. “[For] what we were paying for her weekly, I was able to put my one child in military childcare for months. It was that big of a difference.”

She’s not even sure she and her husband could have had the size family that they wanted if she had always had to rely on that kind of daycare — the only one available to most American parents. This was driven home at one posting in particular, where she found herself working with a lot of civilian coworkers. “A lot of my coworkers, you know, we talked about this, childcare,” she said. “I had a coworker for example who used to talk about how her and her husband were talking about maybe having a child or not. I was surprised to hear how much thought went into, ‘Well, can we afford the childcare,’ before they even got pregnant.”

“We just wanted to have kids,” she explained of her own situation. “I felt like if I were a civilian, that definitely would have had a huge impact on whether we kept having kids or not.”

Parker has benefitted from something few in the civilian world realize exists: in the military, the U.S. government currently runs a high-quality, universally accessible, affordable childcare program for its employees. The government’s one existing universal childcare program is also the country’s finest.

How it works

When an enlisted parent enrolls her child in a child development center with the military, she will only ever pay a percentage of her income — about 10 percent depending on what she makes. Everyone gets subsidized care based on income, not on rank or the child’s age. In the civilian world, by contrast, full-time childcare typically eats up 20 percent or more of a family’s income. For a single parent, it’s more like a quarter. And the younger the child, the more it costs.

A military family making $50,000 a year pays about $100 a week, with low-income families paying $59 and no one paying more than $206. In some states, on the other hand, civilian childcare can cost more like $250 a week.

The military’s child development centers are widely used; more than half of families with two spouses in in the military rely on on-base childcare, while just under 40 percent of those with children under 13 use it routinely so they can work.

The affordability of care is thanks to a huge and important difference between the military system and the one all other parents have to navigate: In the civilian world, the amount and quality of childcare is directly dependent on how much parents can pay. In the military, that link has been severed, and families receive consistent care regardless of how much they’re able to contribute.

The military uses a strict formula: it calculates how much it costs to provide high-quality care for a child, and then multiplies that by the slots that it wants to provide. That calculation includes what it costs to pay childcare providers a decent wage as well as to create safe, stimulating classrooms.

Rather than going directly to parents and asking them to fork over that sticker price, however, the military commits to only asking parents to pay what it considers to be affordable. Government funding then makes up whatever difference there is between what parents can pay and what it costs to provide that care. In 2013, government funding covered about two-thirds of the cost.

“We broke the link between parent fees and personnel costs.”

“We broke the link between parent fees and personnel costs,” explained M.A. Lucas, who was the founding director and program manager of the Army’s Child Development Services System. “You have the fair share fees on the one side, and you have the appropriate wage [for providers] on the other, and the armed services make up the difference.”

It’s the opposite of how things work everywhere else, where little public assistance is available to either parents or childcare centers, and the quality and availability of care is directly linked to how much parents pay. “In essence, we ask the childcare workforce to subsidize the difference between the revenue [generated] either through parents or through, in some cases, a government subsidy” by paying them less, said Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s not just parents who benefit. The 23,000 childcare providers in the military system have a completely different experience than in the civilian market. Once they completed the required education and experience, staff at the centers were paid an average of $15 an hour in 2013, on par with other Department of Defense employees with similar training and experience. In typical years, their pay rises yearly along with all government employees. The average for private sector childcare workers, on the other hand, is about $11 an hour. Military providers also get health insurance, retirement benefits, and sick leave.

With the higher pay, however, come greater expectations. Staff at the military’s centers have to have at least graduated from high school or gotten a GED and must pass a background check. Just 16 states, on the other hand, require that lead providers have the same educational credentials and only 10 require a background check.

Then there’s the training, which is ongoing. “The military trains all day. Training is inherent in the military’s day to day activities,” Lucas said. So it was natural to expect that childcare providers would constantly work to improve what they do. There’s even an on-site trainer, usually with an advanced degree, at every site.

But unlike in the private sector, where there is rarely extra money to pay someone more if she attends a training seminar or gets a higher degree, each round of training ensures more pay for military childcare staff. “As their education and training and experience increases, their salaries increase very systematically, very predictably, and in exactly the same way as everyone else who works alongside them in the military,” said Deborah Phillips, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who has studied the military’s system. “There are no incentives at all to do something else to increase your wages.” Turnover is lower because pay incentivizes people to stay. Not to mention that it creates an atmosphere of constant learning and support.

“It’s a matter of pride, really, to work in the military childcare program,” Phillips added. “They really are the jewel in the crown of the military.”

“It’s a matter of pride, really, to work in the military childcare program.”

The military also has robust systems to make sure quality and safety standards are met and kept up. “The secret is enforcement of the standards,” Lucas said. “You can have all kinds of standards, but if nobody follows up…”

All centers have to be accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children; by 2013, 98 percent of the military’s child development centers were accredited, with the rest in the process of getting accredited or renewing their accreditation. They must also comply with four annual unannounced inspections to ensure compliance with standards for health, safety, and even curriculum, classroom environment, and class sizes.

“There’s not a single military childcare dollar that goes to an unlicensed, uninspected childcare facility,” Phillips said. In the civilian world, by contrast, only 11 percent of daycares are accredited by either the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Association for Family Child Care. The military system was the only one to earn a B grade for quality regulations in a 2013 ranking — every state scored lower.

The Waymires have sent their son Bruce, now three, to a child development center at Fort Meade since he was about three months old. Even at such a young age, it’s clear how much the quality at his center matters.

“He can already count on one hand,” Mathew, his father, said. “He knows most of his colors, knows a whole bunch of different animals. They’re even helping potty train him.”

He’s picked up social lessons as well. “They teach him all types of manners, how to interact with kids of different ages,” Mathew said. He knows the difference between playing with a young infant and an older child; when family members ask Bruce to come over, he quickly obeys.

It’s not just a happy coincidence that Bruce has learned so much at his center. The providers put a lot of work into his care. “They actually have these matrixes where they track the children’s emotional development, communication skills, physical development, how they socialize with each other, with adult supervisors,” Mathew said. “It’s actually very surprising, in a good way, that they went in that depth with the…tracking of the information.” The parents often get daily feedback.

Having had to put Bruce in a civilian daycare for about a month before their slot opened up on base, the Waymires understand how much this kind of care stands out. “He didn’t get that at the civilian daycare we took him to,” Mathew said. “They were like, ‘He ate half his lunch, we changed his diapers.’” They had to pack Bruce’s lunch every day, but most days the staff didn’t seem to make much of an effort to get him to eat it and just tossed whatever he left unfinished in the garbage.

Bruce’s childcare center offers other perks that ease the burden of juggling raising a family and military service. It opens at 6 a.m., allowing the Waymires to drop Bruce at 6:30 and make it to work, which also starts early. It also provides breakfast, lunch, and snacks, meaning Bruce’s parents don’t need to pack food for him.

And the cost is doable. “On the civilian side, I thought it was really expensive out there, the prices they were asking,” Amanda, Bruce’s mother, said.

The cost of the civilian center they used was “at least double” the cost of military childcare, said Mathew. “It was very eye-opening when we had to transfer Bruce to that one.”

“A Cinderella story”

Things weren’t always like this for military families who needed childcare. In fact, conditions were so dire just a few decades ago that they sparked congressional hearings.

“The story of military childcare in this country has often been referred to as a Cinderella story,” Phillips, the Georgetown University psychologist, said. “It really went from a system in distress to the largest employer-sponsored childcare program in the country that is now considered a model for the nation. And all of that happened over the course of five to ten years.”

In 1982, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report finding that the military’s childcare facilities were in appalling shape. The majority of Army and Navy buildings that housed daycare centers didn’t even meet fire and safety codes, nor did a number in the Air Force and Marines. The GAO also found that the military’s own standards were inadequate — many classrooms exceeded ratio caps, there were no requirements for staff training or classroom materials, and no centers were required to be regulated or inspected by outside organizations.

That report was backed up by real experiences. Lucas went out and personally took a number of pictures of the facilities. “It was just unbelievable,” she said of what she found. The buildings often had asbestos and lead-based paint. Some were in basements, others in old prisons or stables. “You would think this was 200 years ago,” she said. “In fact, it was the early 80s.”

The GAO also found that provider pay was dismal. Childcare providers had the lowest-paid position on the bases; they were paid less than those who stocked commissaries or collected trash. Thanks in part to the low pay, the system had been plagued by turnover; some sites that had rates as high as 300 percent per year.

“It was shocking,” said Helen Blank, director of childcare and early learning at the National Women’s Law Center.

This all emerged as more was beginning to be known about what it took to make a quality daycare center. A seminal study on childcare staffing across the country was published in 1989, and its conclusion was clear: wages were the strongest predictor of quality. “I think the findings were out for like 24 hours and we got a call from the Department of Defense,” Berkeley’s Whitebook, who was the main author of the study, recalled. They wanted to know how wages could help fix the system.

Demographics were another factor. The military was moving away from the draft toward an all-volunteer force, meaning it would need to attract and retain talented people. It realized “we have to start taking care of our own if we want people feel like it’s worth their while to give 20 years of their life…to the military,” Whitebook said.

At the same time, the number of women in the services was climbing; the share of women on active duty rose from less than 2 percent in 1973 to almost 11 percent by 1989. “The end of the draft came,” Lucas, the longtime Army consultant, said. And that meant that “before they were dealing with single soldiers, and now they were going to be dealing with an all-volunteer force that would come with families and children.”

“It became clear that childcare, or lack of childcare, could impact the nation’s security.”

“It became clear that childcare, or lack of childcare, could impact the nation’s security, the military’s ability to be ready to defend the country,” Lucas said. The Army conducted anonymous surveys asking whether any members had missed training due to a lack of childcare — something that impacts an entire team. “When the results came back it was quite shocking,” she said. “That was a wake up call.” The military started thinking about investments in childcare as investments in its workforce.

Then another scandal emerged a few years later when a number of military daycare centers were hit with allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by staff on the children, including a case at the Presidio base in California where 60 children were alleged to have been abused.

“That really sounded a note of alarm and became the catalyst for congressional hearings,” Phillips said. “It took a crisis.” Some members, like Ted Kennedy, got deeply involved in the cause of fixing the system’s problems.

Congress held hearings on the state of the military’s childcare system over the course of two years. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. “In the beginning they were very resistant. We took a lot of heat,” Lucas said, remembering her work to advocate for investment in military childcare. “We were called the pink steamrollers, the childcare mafia, and it wasn’t meant as affectionate either.”

But advocates like her were strategic. “We didn’t talk a lot about the children to start with. We talked about keeping soldiers on the job,” she said. They also didn’t come out of the gate asking for a huge amount of money, but instead started small and planned to increase it gradually every year.

Eventually it all led to the passage of the Military Child Care Act in 1989 with the overwhelming support of both parties. And that’s when everything changed.

The legislation gave centers a window of time to either fix or close their facilities if they weren’t up to code, which led to the construction of more than 200 centers. It required the military to establish regulations and create an inspection system with routine, unannounced visits. It implemented the sliding scale fee system and instituted the funding formula focused on how to provide quality care. And it substantially improved pay and training for providers as well as curriculum development. The latter change dropped the 300 percent turnover rates down to about 30 percent.

“They were serious,” Blank recalled. “They were willing to make the commitment to all of the components and to funding them.”

The military miracle isn’t really one, though. The same reforms that were made to its system could easily be applied to civilian daycare for all parents: higher quality standards with funding for upgrades and regular enforcement, increased pay and training for providers, and the government stepping in to fill the gap between what parents can afford and while high-quality care costs.

“It’s not a miracle,” Blank said. “It’s the determination, and you have to fund it. You have to fund it.”

The circumstances that led to radical reforms in the military in the late 80s are not really different than those that face parents in the private market today. There is little regulation or incentive for daycares to focus on quality and safety. There are many places where there aren’t any daycare slots at all. Providers are paid on par with fast food employees and parking lot attendants, with no increase for improving their skills and education. They make about a quarter less than other workers with the same qualifications and education.

And parents face enormous, swelling costs. Just as the military knew that the inability to afford good childcare would hurt its readiness and productivity, so too has expensive childcare hampered American parents’ ability to work.

“We talk about four factors in our business plan: availability, affordability, quality, and accountability,” Lucas said. “The bottom line is that [these] factors are interdependent.”

“There’s no reason why it could not provide a model for the rest of the country.”

The military’s reforms show that all of this can be addressed — but that it has to be done comprehensively and with the funding to back it up. “It holds hundreds of lessons,” Phillips said. “There’s no reason why it could not provide a model for the rest of the country. It’s a matter of what is valued and what is paid for. Those are the barriers.”

President Trump has indicated he wants to move in the opposite direction, slashing funding for the military’s system in his budget. But military leaders remain steadfast. Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III told ThinkProgress in an email that the Defense Department “views childcare as a workforce issue that is critical to the overall accomplishment of the military mission.”

“To sustain high-quality programs, the department is committed to adequate funding, strict oversight, ongoing training and professional development for staff, wages tied to completion of training components, strong family involvement, and ensuring that programs meet national accreditation standards,” said Caggins.

If the Army can figure out childcare, so can the country. “You shouldn’t have to join the military to get it,” Blank said