In what will come as no surprise to military families, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission offers wide praise for the quality of military child care, but says there simply isn't enough of it.

The commission recommends that Congress give the Defense Department more flexibility to build or expand military child care centers, similar to temporary authority given to DoD in 2006 when service officials were able to increase the number of child care spaces by more than 10,000 before the authority expired in 2009.

The services used operation and maintenance funds to build new child development centers or expand existing ones during that time.

The commission recommends allowing projects costing up to $15 million under a renewal of that authority.

The emphasis should be on adding more spaces for children ages newborn to 3, the commission stated.

Troops and families who gave feedback about quality-of-life programs to the commission through surveys, town hall meetings and other forums "illuminated the importance of these programs that are, in many cases, beloved," according to the commission.

Programs for children, especially DoD schools and the Exceptional Family Member Program, were cited as key aspects of military quality of life, according to the commission.

Yet child care was among the services identified as needing improvement. DoD reported to the commission that as of last September, more than 11,000 children were on waiting lists for child care.

But that may not accurately reflect the full unmet need, commissioners noted, because of some data inaccuracies with waiting lists, and the fact that some parents choose to seek child care elsewhere because waiting lists are so long.

DoD's goal is to provide child care within 90 days of need. Child care services are clearly not an entitlement, according to military policy, and not every military parent wants or needs military child care. But the shortage of care for those who do need it was cited as a frustration that affects quality of life and willingness to serve or accept certain assignments, the commission stated.

Troops and their families reported that the shortage "sometimes results in situations where they cannot afford alternatives, find it difficult to meet demanding military work schedules, and have to forgo opportunities for spouse employment or education," according to the report.

One survey respondent praised the staff at child development centers as being "very loving and nurturing toward the children," but added: "My complaint is that at bases with 24-hour operations, there are no 24-hour child care facilities, limited local options, and no Family Child Care homes willing to care for children on nights, weekends or overnight when active-duty parents have to work."

In addition to giving the services more flexibility to build and expand centers, the commission recommends that DoD:

  • Gain a clearer picture of the need for child care by immediately establishing mandatory, standardized monitoring and reporting of wait times, with data broken down by age groups.
  • Exempt child care employees from future hiring freezes and furloughs. That includes those paid by taxpayer dollars and nonappropriated fund dollars.

On other quality-of-life benefits, the commission recommended:

  • Allowing unaccompanied dependents of service members deployed for 30 days or more to use space-available travel on DoD aircraft under Category IV priority. There are six categories of priority for space-A; current DoD policy allows dependents of service members deployed for at least 120 days to travel unaccompanied on space-A.
  • Adding a national military dependent student identifier to enable school systems across the U.S. to consistently report on attendance and academic performance of military students. This would require a change in law to add students with at least one parent or guardian who is an active-duty member to the categories of data required for reporting under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

This has long been advocated by the Military Child Education Coalition and other advocates for military children and is an active issue within DoD.

"Consistent, national-level reporting on the performance and attendance of military dependent students is currently not available," the commission said, "which "inhibits efforts to better understand and support these children."

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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