Pentagon leaders are gathering input from service members and their spouses, child development experts and early childhood educators aimed at generating discussions and gathering ideas for how to improve the Defense Department's child care programs.
The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy convened a daylong child care summit on Sept. 15 to facilitate discussions and capture a broad range of perspectives as DOD officials identify policies that benefit military parents and childcare providers.
Ashish S. Vazirani, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said improving access to quality, affordable child care is a critical component of the DOD's focus on taking care of service members and their families.
"When we take care of our people, members of our total force can focus on their mission to defend the nation," Vazirani said as he kicked off the summit in Washington. "Taking care of people's basic needs and improving the quality of life of our people is our mission at [the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for] Personnel and Readiness because our people are our greatest advantage.
"And to be absolutely clear, for a two-income family, child care is a basic need, and we have an obligation to do more to help our service members, civilian employees and their families meet that need," he said.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has prioritized efforts to strengthen support for DOD personnel and family members under his "Taking Care of Our Service Members and Families" initiative.
Improving access to child care is a key part of that effort.
The DOD operates one of the largest employer-sponsored childcare programs in the U.S., serving more than 160,000 children every year. The program is also recognized as a leader in early child development.
Still, Pentagon officials have said it's imperative to continue to improve access to quality, affordable programs that suit the unique needs of DOD families worldwide.
"I hope you all know that you've got someone at the very top in your corner ready to fight for the issues that you're working on and take child care to the very top within the Pentagon," said Grier Martin, assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs.
The summit featured panel discussions with officials overseeing child care policy at the service and department-wide levels and briefings from childhood development experts aimed at generating discussions and gathering ideas for how to improve DOD childcare programs.
Walter Gilliam, executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, was among the experts who provided insights into the importance of quality child care.
"Child care is an infrastructure," he said. "It is a core infrastructure for all economies, including the military."
Gilliam highlighted the importance of reliable childcare options for working parents and focused on the critically important work that well-trained and engaged early childhood educators do in setting children on a lifelong path for success.
He also underscored the importance of supporting the providers themselves.
"I can tell you this: Our children's cups are filled to the degree that the early educators' and childcare providers' cup is overflowing," he said. "And unless that is happening, unless our child care providers are well, then our children that are in their care will not be."
Attendees also took part in a variety of working group discussions focused on:
- Improving DOD fee assistance programs.
- Enhancing the DOD Child Care in Your Home pilot.
- Strategies to improve the recruitment and retention of childcare providers.
- Strategies to improve the well-being of frontline child care providers.
- Strategies to enhance communication efforts about child care programs with DOD families.
The summit offered an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders throughout the DOD to have their voices heard. Officials said those voices are critical as DOD policymakers continue to improve DOD childcare programs.
Patricia M. Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy said the insights gleaned from the workshop will be part of broader discussions as officials craft policy to build a stronger workforce.
"It takes a village," she said. "It does take all of us together, pulling together to get after what we want. And what we want is to provide the very best quality, affordable childhood experience for the most important people in our lives: our children."