Fixing Child Care: What We Can Learn From the Military
Policymakers are overlooking a program that could solve the issue of inadequate child care infrastructure — the system serving military families.
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Every community in the US has a K-12 school district. This same system doesn’t exist for our youngest children.
While public schools have struggles, families can navigate a district with elementary, middle, and high schools. But, early child care education doesn’t have the same infrastructure. We’ve been overlooking a national program for child care that could solve this issue — the child care system for military families. This model could serve as a valuable blueprint for establishing a more comprehensive and accessible child care infrastructure for all American families.
More than of families in this country live in child care deserts, a census tract with more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots. Furthermore, roughly children will likely lose spots resulting from the end of pandemic relief federal funds for child care, which expired September 30, 2023. Without child care, children miss out on early education, and parents find it hard to work and support their families. This also affects businesses, as our current child care system isn’t strong enough to meet the needs of working families.
Prior to the , military families struggled to access reliable child care, and child care providers lacked resources to offer high-quality consistent care. After the act passed, wages increased for early educators working in military child care programs, standards increased for child care and military families could reliably access affordable care. The resulting system was mixed delivery, meaning families could access child care in a variety of settings, including larger centers and home-based child care programs. In 2020, about , compared with 9 percent of civilian centers nationwide.
This model can serve as a blueprint for increasing accessibility to child care for more families. It begins with dedicated, sustained public investment in child care across multiple settings so children and families have access to child care that meets their needs. Tessie Ragan, a veteran and owner of Perfect Start Learning in California, participates in the military child care program because of the opportunity it affords to provide high-quality early learning opportunities to a diverse group of children & families.
Data shows that access to high-quality early childhood care has significant lifelong benefits. One showed that children from low-income backgrounds who received 24 months of early childhood education before age 5 had higher graduation rates and earned higher salaries by 26 percent compared to peers without access.
However, the number of regulated home-based child care programs (also called family child care) has been in steep decline. From December 2019 to March 2021, family child care (FCC) programs closed in 36 states, representing a 10 percent loss in licensed FCC programs. This is on top of the more than 97,000 (25%) licensed family child care homes closed in the United States between 2005 and 2017.
According to a 2023 survey of NAFCC members, 32 percent of respondents stated their income does not allow them to cover expenses like rent, utilities, and supplies. Educators who care for children from their homes and operate as small businesses often make far below minimum wage. Family care providers must cover these expenses without federal subsidies, often forcing many of them to to cover costs and provide for their own families.
As we have learned from the military child care system, well-funded early-learning programs include dollars so that early educators like Ragan can cover the costs of competitive wages for staff, rent, insurance, materials, and professional development.
Every parent wants what’s best for their kids and high-quality child care should be broadly available. A well-funded early care and education system enhances workforce participation, particularly . As parents have more opportunities to work and advance in their careers, their families and the overall economy benefit.
By leaning into the federal child care education model and advocating for increased funding we can build a robust child care system that supports families and empowers early care and education providers ensuring a brighter future for all our children.
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