In a step toward easing the burden on military spouses who transfer their professional license after a PCS move, defense officials have approved grants to help develop that licensure portability in five occupations.

Those professions are teaching, social work, cosmetology, massage therapy, and dentistry/dental hygiene. Others will follow. All told, Defense Department officials calculate there are about 132,140 active duty spouses in numerous professions that require licensing.

“The department views the selection of these professions as a significant milestone in achieving the long-term goal of providing license portability for military spouses,” Lernes J. Hebert, performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, said recently in a briefing to the Senate Armed Services Committee staff, according to Defense Department announcement of the grants.

The plan is to develop draft legislative language that states could consider adopting, to bring consistency to these licensing requirements. This is just the first step in a long process which could take several years or more.

The grant funding —up to $1 million per profession — was provided to the Council of State Government’s National Center for Interstate Compacts. The council will provide logistical support to a professional organization in each of these five occupations, helping them draft an interstate compact to establish a common understanding of competency and its measurement within the occupation. Ultimately, those compacts would make it easier for spouses to transfer a license in their profession from one state to another. Occupational licensing laws and rules are generally enacted by states, to protect the public safety of the consumer. This will also be a focus of those drafting the interstate compacts.

These interstate compacts will benefit not only military spouses, but any practitioner who moves across state lines.

“The funding will make a difference in getting the compact work done,” said Phillip Rogers, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, a professional organization whose members are responsible for the preparation, licensure, and discipline of K-12 educational personnel in their states. NASDTEC was just named by the Council of State Governments to lead the effort to bring together an advisory group to draft the legislative language for the teachers interstate compact. As states decide to adopt the identical legislative language, spouses will be able to know exactly what to expect when they move to a participating state, when it comes to requirements for getting a teaching job.

Whether they’re teachers or attorneys or cosmetologists, military spouses have long struggled with the hassle and expense of getting their occupational license in a new state when they make a move with their military member — delaying their ability to get a job and adversely affecting their family’s finances.

According to Defense officials about 14.5 percent of military spouses move across state lines each year, compared to 1.1 percent of civilian spouses. And DoD officials calculate about 132,140 active duty spouses are in occupations that require licenses, representing 39 percent of the 337,678 active duty spouses who are in the workforce, according to a December, 2019 report.

About one out of five spouses experience challenges maintaining those licenses, according to a DoD survey of spouses.

The DoD state liaison office has been working for a decade to address the states’ licensing requirements and burdens on spouses, and moved in 2017 to also consider occupational license compacts as another alternative to improve portability for military spouses.

Under the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, DoD is authorized to enter a cooperative agreement with the Council of State Governments, and spend up to $1 million per profession to help develop interstate compacts for states to consider adopting, and for the development of a database system for states to use to share licensing data about practitioners. The law allows DoD to spend up to $4 million a year on this effort.

The Council of State Government has made progress with the development of interstate licensing compacts in some professions prior to this funding effort —medicine, nursing, physical therapy, psychology, emergency medical services, audiology/speech-language pathology, licensed professional counseling and occupational therapy.

Here’s what a teaching interstate compact could do

The education profession is one of the most common among military spouses in occupations that require licensing, with about 38,865 active duty military spouses working in education as of 2019, according to DoD. “Every state has its own array of certificates and requirements,” said Rogers, NASDTEC’s executive director. A big difference is in how states determine the minimum requirements for “experienced” versus “inexperienced,” he said.

Military spouses may never meet that next state’s definition of “experienced.” Even though the spouses may have 10 or 15 years of experience, it may be a patchwork of 2 years in one place, six months in another, and so on as they move to new locations with their military member. They may show up with 15 years of experiences, but have to take assessments just as if they’re beginning, he said.

An interstate compact would remove those barriers for military spouses, “so they can take their professional certificates, walk into another state that’s part of the interstate compact, and get a job immediately without taking courses and tests and things of that nature,” Rogers said. There still will be some requirements, such as background checks.

“There’s a growing interest among states toward alignment of requirements and assessments, while at the same time making sure we are placing the most effective teacher we can in every classroom,” Rogers said. This would also increase states’ access to a wider pool of teachers.

“Military families will be able to know exactly what the requirements are going to be if that state is part of the compact,” he said.

NASDTEC will bring an advisory group together representing a variety of groups — military spouses, parent organizations, the Education Commission of the States, Department of Defense Education Activity, the National Education Association, and more — to draft the legislative language states for states to consider. The Council of State Governments provides the logistical support and compact expertise, such as attorneys. The council will lead the design of the compact. Once drafted, these compacts undergo extensive review and public comment, and then states begin the process of considering whether to adopt the compact legislation.

Rogers said it’s estimated that the process of drafting the legislative language will take a year to a year and a half. After that, it’s up to each state to agree to adopt that legislative language; that could take several years. Once a yet-to-be-determined number of states adopt the compact, an interstate commission will be formed, with a member representing each participating state, to oversee implementation.

One interstate compact in a separate arena familiar to many military families is the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. The Council of State Governments began work on framing the compact in 2006, and it was adopted in the 50 states and D.C. between 2008 and 2014. That interstate compact addresses key educational transition issues affecting military children as they move with their parents, including enrollment, placement, attendance, eligibility and graduation.

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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