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Child care subsidies vary by service

Feb. 16, 2012 - 12:26PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2012 - 12:26PM  |  
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Average monthly military child care costs per child off and on installations in the 2009-10 school year:
Navy: $562
Air Force: $542
Marine Corps: $388
Army: $345
All services: $387

Navy: $496
Air Force: $509
Marine Corps: $430
Army: $388
All services: $414
Source: GAO analysis of data from the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies

Out-of-pocket child care costs for military families outside installations vary widely among the services, according to a recent report from congressional auditors.

Navy and Air Force families not only have the highest average child care fees, but they pay considerably more for off-base care than for on-base care.

Army and Marine families, in contrast, generally pay less overall for child care and their average costs are actually lower for off-base care than in military child development centers.

The differences are driven by divergent philosophies among the services in how they subsidize those costs, according to a Feb. 3 Government Accountability Office report.

Subsidies are offered to families who do not have access to a military child care center. Families pay the balance out of pocket.

The Air Force and Navy pay subsidies of up to $225 per month per child, based on location; the Marine Corps gives all eligible families $250 per month per child.

The Army has no cap, although it does place limits, on a case-by-case basis, on families using private providers who charge rates above what the Army considers reasonable for high-quality care in the local market.

GAO looked at subsidies at a variety of child care centers and private day care providers, said Janet Mascia, an assistant director at GAO. The biggest factor in determining costs is the local market, Mascia said.

The report said there is nothing in the works to equalize off-base costs across services, and Robert Gordon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, echoed that sentiment.

The services "demonstrate a philosophical difference in choosing to cap the fee assistance versus choosing to provide greater fee assistance to families in high-cost areas," he wrote in a response to the report, which looked at a random sample of 338 families using off-base child care in the 2009-10 school year.

Gordon also urged caution in drawing conclusions based on a random sample of 338 families, given that the system serves about 200,000 children, 25,000 of them in subsidized off-installation care.

Auditors also found wide disparities in the average cost of on-base care among and even within the services.

Because a few installations in high-cost areas had been allowed to charge fees outside the Defense Department's approved fee ranges for on-base care, costs varied by $200 or more for families with similar incomes in school year 2009-10, GAO reported.

Like the off-base costs, those variances stem from differences in how the services price on-base programs.

But services no longer have quite as much sway in setting child care fees.

Defense officials have begun replacing the traditional fee ranges with single, standard fees, based on income level, for all installations. That has already narrowed the differences paid from base to base; in the 2010-11 school year, the disparity in monthly on-base fees narrowed to less than $140.

The GAO report was requested by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. The report, which makes no recommendations, was delivered to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., leaders of the Senate and House Armed Services committees.

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