Special Report

U.S. Military Tackles Child-Care Quality

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 10, 2002 3 min read

Janice R. Witte has seen both the worst and the best of child-care programs serving the offspring of military personnel over the past 24 years.

The worst included a cold, stark center in Baumholder, Germany, where two poorly trained staff members struggled to entertain and nurture 40 young children with only a well-worn Fisher-Price toy farm and a single tricycle.

That was in the late 1970s, when Witte began overseeing child-care programs for the U.S. Army.

The best, with highly trained and well-paid staff members, well-equipped facilities, and developmentally appropriate educational programs, are as common now as the former example was then.

From Problem to Model

Once derided as the “ghetto” of child care, the system of early-childhood centers serving all branches of the U.S. military has become a national model after more than a decade of intensive reforms and unprecedented resources.

“There was a lot of skepticism when the Army announced it was taking over child care,” says Witte, who now directs the office of children and youth for the U.S. Department of Defense. Transforming the vast and disconnected array of programs, in which conditions were often deplorable and the problems deep, she says, seemed too great a challenge.

But the coordinated system for all branches of the military that emerged from that effort is now in many ways outstanding, says Adele Robinson, the director of public policy and communications for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “It is better than most state systems,” she says, “because it really has universal quality standards: Teachers have to have a certain kind of training, and centers have to be accredited.”

Participating centers, primarily located on military bases, must meet the rigorous requirements that resulted from the Military Child Care Act of 1989.

Now, nearly all the 800 centers that serve more than 170,000 military children worldwide meet strict safety standards and have earned accreditation from the NAEYC.

The programs must use developmentally appropriate activities and materials. The system’s nearly 10,000 child-care workers go through training before setting foot in a classroom, and about one-fourth have gone beyond that requirement and earned at least a Child Development Associate credential.

Jobs that paid workers in some locations less than $1 an hour two decades ago now average more than $10 an hour. Turnover has dropped from as high as 300 percent annually to about 30 percent, in a system that draws many workers from within the highly mobile military community.

“One of the most important things that they did overall was approach this systemically and look at what are all the pieces needed to improve the child-care system,” says Nancy Duff Campbell, the author of “Be All That We Can Be: Lessons From the Military for Improving Our Nation’s Child Care System,” a report published in 2000 by the National Women’s Law Center.

“They also recognized that unless you train and pay providers well, you are not going to have quality,” she says.

The military child-development system serves the largest number of children of any employer in the country, according to the Defense Department. The system meets about 58 percent of the projected need for care.

Over the past several years, officials have been working to bring more home-based providers into the fold, a task that has proved more time-consuming because of the strict training and safety standards the military requires.

Several states are turning to the military model to improve their own child-care systems, according to Campbell. In Pennsylvania, for example, legislation was introduced last fall to encourage child-care providers to tackle the issue of quality.

“The military model is really attractive because it looks at the child-care program as a system,” says Sharon C. Ward, the director of childcare policy for Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a group that has been pushing for the legislation for two years.

A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2002 edition of Education Week