A new funding stream for child development centers on military bases aims to at least start to address problems with lack of enough child care spaces for military families, and what one senator describes as some “dilapidated” facilities.

Provisions included in the sweeping defense policy bill unveiled this week would provide about $121 million for child development centers, giving the service branches the flexibility to determine where the dollars are needed first.

The bill, which is being considered by the House and the Senate, lays out $62.4 million for unspecified centers for the Navy; $31.5 million for the Air Force; and $27 million for the Army. Within 90 days after the bill becomes law, the services will provide a list of the projects they propose to start to the defense committees.

For years, military leaders have said the common thread they hear when visiting service members is the lack of available and affordable child care.

There’s a wide range of needs in child development centers, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who pushed for the funding. Some are in good condition, but just don’t have enough space. Others are in bad need of repair, she said, adding that “it’s really appalling,” describing some as dilapidated.

“As a former preschool teacher, I was appalled at what we are asking parents to leave their kids in,” said Murray, who visited child development centers at Bangor, which is part of Naval Base Kitsap, and Fairchild Air Force Base earlier this year. At Bangor, she said, pre-schoolers had to walk outside the facility to get to a restroom; there was paint peeling on walls; and children were crowded on the floor at nap time.

“It’s not a good learning environment, it’s not a good care environment, and I have been determined to make a difference with that,” she said. She worked to get these items in the defense bill “ so that our military can move forward with the resources they need to focus on this.”

Murray said she has long been concerned about the lack of available child care and the impact on the readiness of military members. A key part of readiness, she said, “is that they know their kids are in a safe place, in terms of child care.

A long-standing problem is the lack of enough child care spaces in some locations. Murray said she talked to one spouse who spends an hour on the road in the morning and in the evenings to get to the child care facility off base.

In addition to specific requests for projects for the few child development centers that are included in the administration’s budget request, this pumps more money into child development centers and gives the services the flexibility to determine where the money is needed first. The dollars could be used for a variety of construction needs, whether building, expanding or improving.

“Different bases have different needs,” Murray said. “ The services have to put together a list of priorities. They know their bases and where their needs are.”

The National Military Family Association “is pleased that Congress recognizes there’s a more immediate need” for addressing child care needs, said Nicole Russell, deputy director for children and youth for the nonprofit organization.

Murray acknowledged that this funding is a start – “something we’ve never had before.”

For today’s military, where both spouses are working in many families, and need child care, this funding “is a really great step forward for the military that we have today, not yesterday,” Murray said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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