Cover: The Armed Services' Response to the Military Child Care Act

The Armed Services' Response to the Military Child Care Act

Published 1998

by Gail L. Zellman, Anne Johansen

Research Brief

By mid 1993, just over three years after its passage, the Military Child Care Act of 1989 (MCCA) had largely succeeded in two of its major goals: improving the quality of care and ensuring its affordability for military parents. In fact, 95 percent of military child development program managers responding to a survey reported that after MCCA implementation, military child care was of good or excellent quality. The act's success may work to reassure military personnel of their children's well being and to cut down on distractions from the job.

The goal of affordability was also met. Parents' fees for child care average almost 25 percent less than those for civilian families. The MCCA made modest strides toward a third goal—increasing the availability of child care slots. The reform's success is even more noteworthy given that the legislation designated an immediate, mid-year start-up without an appropriation.

Examining the Implementation and Outcomes of the Military Child Care Act of 1989, a study by Gail L. Zellman and Anne S. Johansen for RAND's National Defense Research Institute, tells the story of the MCCA's implementation.[1] The researchers based their analyses on data from hundreds of military documents, a worldwide mail survey of military child development program managers, and interviews with 175 individuals involved in child care at a wide range of installations.

Complying Was No Small Matter

The MCCA functioned as a catalyst for improvement in all branches of the military. The Army, which undertook reform with more resources and a more fully developed child care system, achieved the highest level of compliance with MCCA provisions and experienced the easiest implementation process. In contrast, the Marine Corps, lacking adequate headquarters-level child development staff as well as strong commitment to the reform, experienced low compliance and a difficult implementation period. The Navy and the Air Force fell between these two extremes.

The act was designed to address a variety of problems in military child care, including unmet demand, inadequate staff training and low retention, lack of developmental care, inadequate facilities, and uneven quality of care. To address these issues, the act required significant changes in Child Development Center (CDC) funding, operation, and personnel. It required the services to match fee dollars from parents with appropriated funds, to standardize fees based on total family income across services and installations, and to raise caregivers' pay while tying it to training milestones. Unannounced CDC inspections, the development of training materials for child care staff, and the hiring of a training and curriculum specialist at each CDC were mandated as well.

As a means of promoting excellence and professionalism, the act called for at least 50 military CDCs to become accredited. This provision alone led to significant quality improvements, particularly after the Army and Air Force adopted policies directing all their centers to become accredited soon after the act went into effect. The Navy and Marine Corps mandated accreditation subsequently.

How Hard Was the Implementation of Major MCCA Provisions?

Provisions of the MCCA Implementation Status as of August 1993 (percent)a Implementation Difficultyb
Appropriated funds match 66c Difficult
Caregiver pay program 100 Easy
Parent fee policy 100 Easy
Inspection 100 Difficult
Certification 80 Difficult
Technical and curriculum specialists hired 74 (of positions filled) Intermediate
New General Schedule positions created 9 (per installation) Difficult
General Schedule positions filled 40 Difficult
Parent boards 96 Easy
FCC subsidies 16 Easy
Accreditation by 8/93 119 CDCs (26 percent of all CDCs in mail survey) Intermediate

aData from mail survey.

bThis column represents a qualitative assessment drawn from mail surveys of child development program managers, field data, and document abstraction. "Difficult" and "easy" ratings were assigned if all available data indicated such a process; "intermediate" ratings were given if the data revealed a mixed experience.

cDoD sources indicate that the match had been met overall by then; our findings may reflect lack of a match on individual installations.

Implementation Challenges

MCCA implementation occurred without appropriations, and in the middle of a budget year, just as the services were beginning post–Cold War downsizing. This context created a tough situation; all branches except the Army needed to dramatically increase appropriated funds going to child care to equal revenues from parent fees. To achieve this match, funds had to be shifted from other activities into child care.

A shrinking budget also led to hiring freezes that made it difficult for CDCs to hire General Schedule staff (as opposed to nonappropriated-funds staff who are more easily hired and terminated). In addition, commanding officers and their staffs had to make quick changes in financing while operating within a system that typically moves slowly. Channeling appropriated funds through the military's budget planning system was a lengthy process that took up to three years for some installations.

On the positive side, the military's hierarchical, rule-driven nature ultimately promoted overall implementation. The Army and the Navy made special efforts to plan and monitor implementation early on. Both services wrote and distributed detailed guidance documents to major command and installation-level implementers. In addition, the eventual influx of appropriated funds into CDCs facilitated the implementation of pay increases for caregivers tied to training milestones, which led to lower staff turnover, improved quality, and increased professionalism among staff.

The table summarizes the study's findings about the degree of difficulty the services experienced in implementing the act's major provisions.

Side Effects: Youth Programs and Family Child Care

At some installations, MCCA-precipitated changes reduced the number of available CDC spaces for children. In a few cases, infant care, which demands the smallest child-to-caregiver ratios, was moved out of CDCs to keep them solvent.

Family Child Care (FCC)—in-home care provided by military dependents—was affected in a number of ways. The act mandated that FCC coordinators become General Schedule employees, which increased FCC legitimacy and stability. The act also provided for the subsidization of FCC caregivers with appropriated funds, but this optional provision was not widely implemented. However, indirect subsidies to FCCs became common during MCCA implementation. These subsidies are used to pay for equipment, supplies, and insurance.

Although the MCCA was designed to apply to children from birth to 12 years of age, virtually all of its provisions referred to those under six, and nearly all dealt with those receiving care in CDCs. Youth Programs, for example, experienced little benefit from the MCCA, and the act's intense focus on CDCs drained both attention and support from programs for school-age children.

An Effective but Tough Congressional Mandate

Because the MCCA's implementation schedule required commanding officers to redirect funds from other programs, the reform was met with some resistance and delay. This response was gradually overcome, in part because the act mandated structured implementation, compliance monitoring, periodic briefings, and progress reports. In retrospect, MCCA implementation illuminates the process that unfunded congressional mandates are likely to follow as they are enacted. Those goals that were monitored were eventually met. Goals that were not pinned to a structured implementation process—subsidization of FCCs, increased parental involvement in child development program planning, and increased availability of care—were not as fully realized.


RAND researchers believe the following future actions would help military child care programs continue to build a system that meets the needs of children, families, and the military:

  • More closely integrate Youth Programs into the military child care system.
  • To the extent possible, raise the status and funding of FCC to match that of CDCs.
  • Increase coordination and networking within all facets of the child care system.
  • Consolidate responsibility for all children's programs under one position per installation such as that of the Air Force's Youth Support Flight Chief, a single individual who oversees both child development and youth programs.
  • Promote universal accreditation of centers to improve and maintain standards of care.
  • Create a General Schedule caregiver series and specific qualifications to increase recruiting efficiency, reduce turnover, and better serve both children and job seekers.
  • Increase flexibility in the use of appropriated funds to help CDCs purchase equipment and supplies inexpensively and promptly.
  • Investigate the process of obtaining background checks for General Schedule–position applicants to determine if it can be accelerated.
  • Consolidate all parent boards at each installation into one unified advisory and support group.


  • [1] RAND has conducted two related studies about child care in the military. Examining the Effects of Accreditation on Military Child Development Center Operations and Outcomes, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, MR-524-OSD, 1994, by G. Zellman, A. Johansen, and J. Van Winkle, describes Child Development Center accreditation and asserts that it is a powerful tool for improving quality. Improving the Delivery of Military Child Care: An Analysis of Current Operations and New Approaches, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, R-4145-FMP, 1992, by G. Zellman, A. Johansen, and L. Meredith, evaluated the quality of military child care before the MCCA.

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