Thawing the Freeze

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:  Green & Write, March 3, 2017

In the last week there have been several reports of military-base childcare and preschool centers closing due to President Trump’s executive order instituting a federal civilian hiring freeze. Pushback in response to the placement of blame on the order has cited the exemption of “positions providing child care to the children of military personnel.” The exemption of certain essential positions was detailed in the guidance issued by the Defense Department a week after the signing of the executive order. However, even with these exemptions, there is still a process of approval to hire workers to fill current and subsequent vacancies.

New Complication, Same Problem

While a hiring freeze has made finding childcare teachers more difficult on military bases, the problem is bigger than that. The average teacher turnover in childcare is 30% annually. Is it possible that this is why these military bases are closing or reducing services? If they are experiencing turnover rates that high, it would be hard to keep spaces filled while accounting for the additional step of getting approval for new hires.

Viewing the Issue From a Different Angle

The problems that military base childcare centers have had to deal with since the hiring freeze are unfortunate, but when you look at the state of childcare on military bases they are far from unfortunate. Since 1989, when Congress passed the Military Child Act, the federal government has invested substantially in providing military families with reliable high quality childcare. 95% of the 800 military childcare centers are NAEYC accredited, meaning that they meet standards typically higher than those that many states mandate.

In addition to accreditation, which any childcare center can apply for, military childcare centers stand in stark contrast to “civilian” childcare options in several ways. First, families living on military bases pay a maximum of 10% of their income for childcare, with the rest of the costs for staff salaries, program supplies, support services, and accreditation fees being paid by the federal government ($700 million for fiscal year 2015). This funding has made it possible to increase staff salaries by 76% and dramatically decreased turnover.

It is not the first time that the differences between military and non-military childcare have been noted. Obviously the changes that the Military Child Act mandated impacted childcare tremendously, in a very positive way. So why hasn’t the federal government, or more likely states, taken this as a cue to implement at least some of the same changes?

You Have to Start Somewhere

Yes, that $700,000,000 price tag is a whopper, but it covers a lot. And besides, states may not necessarily need to invest so dramatically from the get-go. A good starting place for states to invest is teacher salaries. Currently childcare teachers’ annual income is barely above the poverty threshold, and in some states it is below the poverty threshold. If you take into account that nationally half of childcare workers need some form of public assistance (food stamps, welfare payments, or Medicaid), investing in increased salaries may actually benefit the government through a reduced need in these supports while having a secondary effect of decreasing teacher turnover.

The reports of military base childcare closings, while not ideal, may be just the catalyst needed to focus national attention on the importance of childcare to families, and the distress that it causes when it’s disrupted.

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Jessica Landgraf

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