Classes on Youngster Care, From the Navy

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– 1975 New York Times article on military childcare

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In 1978, Linda Smith entered her new job as program director of the Childcare Center at Williams Air Force Base, Arizona, and found a disturbing sight: dozens of toddlers and infants, all in a room with a single caregiver and a television attached to the wall.

“They were all just running around the room and there was only one chair – for the caregiver,” Ms. Smith said. “Imagine the chaos.”

The scene Ms. Smith witnessed was actually pretty common in a childcare system that was deeply underfunded and riddled with scandals at the time. At the time, most military daycare centers didn’t even meet fire and safety regulations, according to a scathing report released in 1982 by the General Accounting Office, the watchdog of Congress.

The turning point came in 1987 when the U.S. Army closed a childcare center on the Presidio base in San Francisco amid reports of child sexual abuse.

In the years that followed, the Department of Defense, with the help of Ms. Smith, would initiate a reorganization of its childcare system, laying the foundation for the creation of what is widely regarded as one of the best in the country.

Today the system’s standards are considered stricter than any state, and almost all of its centers meet criteria for national accreditation, which include an audited curriculum and a low student-to-teacher ratio. In comparison, less than one in ten civil programs is accredited.

Since childcare is considered essential to “military readiness,” the Department of Defense spends over $ 1 billion annually and funds everything from maintaining the centers to subsidizing parental contributions to employing 23,000 childcare workers, many of whom are specifically designed by the Military are trained for early education and are paid more than their civilian counterparts.

The model is one that urges researchers, attorneys, and lawmakers – most notably Senator Elizabeth Warren and the co-sponsors of her comprehensive universal childcare bill, including Senator Cory Booker and MPs Mondaire Jones and James McGovern – to emulate the rest of the country.

Last week the House of Representatives passed a $ 3.5 trillion draft that paved the way for Congress to draft laws that would expand the social safety net, though its final form in the coming days through a whimsical process called reconciliation has yet to be worked out. The package is unlikely to go as far as replicating the turn of the military at the national level and instead creating a universal pre-kindergarten system.

But the experience of the military provides crucial lessons. Before its transformation, the military childcare system was plagued by many of the same problems that plague America’s national childcare system today: lack of clear classroom standards, inconsistent quality, and low teacher salaries, said Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America, a national childcare organization.

“The lessons you have learned,” said Ms. Fraga, “could be incredibly important in rethinking the civil system.”

The story of how the Department of Defense reorganized its childcare services is inextricably linked to the broader changes in the military in the 1970s. In 1973 the military ended compulsory military service, which began before the Second World War, and switched to a purely voluntary armed force.

Without a draft and in the shadow of the unpopular Vietnam War, the military had to recruit and retain talent – a situation that catalyzed the development of a number of new policies in the years to come.

One change was the 1975 decision to allow pregnant women to keep their jobs. Up until that point, military women – almost all of whom were out of combat at the time – were automatically discharged if they became pregnant, unless special exemptions were granted. The change in policy quickly resulted in an increase in marriages and babies. Until 1986, at one base – Hampton Roads, Virginia, which housed 100,000 employees and their families – 400 babies were born every month, according to a New York Times article published that year.

Informal childcare arrangements sprang up everywhere. Young parents sometimes asked commanders to look after their children, the Times wrote. “Some commanders grumble that they are warriors, not babysitters.”

Parents called to exercise in the middle of the night often brought their ailing children who were still wearing pajamas and left them in their cars while they worked, Ms. Smith recalled.

In many places, parents set up ad hoc “kindergartens” and temporarily hired carers who were on call every hour. The fees for the parents were so low that they could barely cover the wages of the staff and there was little money left to invest in modernizing the kindergarten.

One of the first things Ms. Smith did when she arrived at the Arizona childcare center was hiring permanent staff and putting them on the government payroll.

Then she tapped a local community college for formal training for its employees. Training was also paid for by the military, and wage increases were linked to the qualifications of the workers. Slowly, these changes began to improve employee retention rates and the quality of care.

The center was completely woven into the functioning of the base. “When they were doing exercises in the middle of the night, I got a call from the base commandant who said, ‘Come to daycare because my men and women can’t come if you don’t.'” Ms. Smith called.

Ms. Smith would replicate her model in over a dozen other US bases around the world.

But at most of the bases the quality was still sluggish and the Congress was under increasing pressure to solve the problem.

In 1989, after consulting Ms. Smith and the Department of Defense, legislature passed the Military Child Care Act, which required the department to fund childcare programs and staff training. The law also increased caregiver wages, kept parenting fees low, and enforced safety standards.

Accountability – things like regular facility inspections – fell under the control of the Department of Defense, not the state, because otherwise “we would never have had consistency,” Ms. Smith said.

Even the military had authority to shut down centers that did not meet their standards. “We had to report to Congress when a center was closed, and no base commander wanted to be reported to Congress that their facility was failing to meet certain standards,” said Ms. Smith, who now serves as the director of the Early Childhood Education Initiative at the bipartisan Policy Center , a think tank.

According to a 2020 report by the impartial Congressional Research Service, about 97 percent of Defense Department-operated daycare centers and certified homes are now accredited nationwide, compared with 9 percent of civilian centers across the country. A non-accredited center can still be licensed by state or local governments after meeting basic health and safety standards that vary from state to state but generally include things like class sizes, staff checks, and building safety. To be accredited, a center must meet a number of higher standards that focus on the quality of the teaching program.

“Think of all childcare systems as a three-legged chair between access, affordability, and quality, and if you focus on just one leg, the other two fall off,” said Rhian Evans Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Toddlers.

With the military system, “they could keep all the legs of the chair on,” Ms. Allvin said.

Military families can enroll on a centralized website to enroll children of all ages. The fees are staggered based on total family income. In 2019, they ranged from about $ 3,000 to $ 8,400 per year per child.

By comparison, the national average full-time civil childcare fee in 2017 was $ 10,000 per year, according to Moody’s analysis, and can be as high as $ 20,000 in Massachusetts.

However, families in the military face long waiting lists that can often last years, said Nicole Russell, assistant director of government relations at the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group. Ms. Russell herself is on a Northern Virginia childcare waiting list. To address the shortage, the Department of Defense has partnered with a network of accredited civilian centers and offered subsidies to pay the higher fees.

Military center carers can earn $ 12-15 an hour on benefits, while national childcare workers can earn a little more than $ 11, often without benefits. This makes the industry one of the worst paid in the country with high poverty rates, according to a recent report by a research institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

Of the several childcare plans that Congress considered this year, Senator Warren’s $ 700 billion bill was one of the most ambitious and comprehensive. It suggested using federal funds to help providers make childcare accessible to children from birth to 5 years old regardless of household income or parenting employment status. It would also have required all childcare facilities to be accredited, tiered fees to be introduced, and wages to be increased for workers.

Many of Senator Warren’s ideas come from the military model, said Jon Donenberg, her current chief of staff, pointing out the universality of the system. No matter what a service employee earns or is in the middle of changing jobs: Your toddlers and toddlers receive affordable, high-quality care.

The $ 3.2 trillion draft budget now working its way through the reconciliation process has so far been known to most likely establish a scaled-down vision for childcare that may include universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. Negotiations during the legislative process – which would require the support of all 50 Senate Democrats and a majority in the House of Representatives – could also reduce overall spending to appease the party’s more conservative arm.

And Ms. Smith noted that there aren’t too many details as to how exactly the federal government would help vendors improve the quality and hiring and training of workers.

“That’s the missing piece right now,” she said. “The money that goes into the programs has made a lot of changes in the military. And I worry that we as a country haven’t learned that while we are going through reconciliation. “