Child Care:

How Do Military and Civilian Center Costs Compare?

HEHS-00-7: Published: Oct 14, 1999. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 1999.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO compared the cost of the Department of Defense's (DOD) high-quality child development program with the cost of comparable care in the civilian market, focusing on: (1) identifying the objectives of the military child development program and describing how it operates; (2) determining the full cost of operating DOD's U.S. child development centers and the cost per child-hour for center-based care; and (3) comparing the cost per child in DOD's child development centers with the full cost of comparable quality child care in the civilian market.

GAO noted that: (1) the primary objective of the military's child development program is to help military families balance the competing demands of family and military responsibilities by providing high-quality child care at affordable rates; (2) DOD's child development program is implemented in each service and provides several child care options, including center care, family child care, and before- and after-school programs; (3) to promote a high-quality child development program, DOD requires that caregiver salaries meet certain prescribed minimum levels and that caregivers across all military services complete comprehensive child development training; (4) DOD is required by law to maintain strict oversight of the health and safety standards of its child development settings through inspections; (5) funding for the program comes from parent fees as well as federal funds; (6) federal funds go toward supplies, equipment, staff training costs, and some staff salaries; (7) about $315 million in federal funds was obligated in fiscal year (FY) 1998 for DOD's child development program; (8) DOD allocated approximately 80 percent of this amount to child development centers, 10 percent to family child care, and 10 percent to school-age care; (9) GAO estimated that the cost to the Air Force of operating its U.S. child development centers was approximately $81.4 million in FY 1997, and the estimated cost per child-hour in these centers was $3.86; (10) labor costs--which include the salaries and benefits of child development center caregivers, directors, and support staff--composed 75 percent of the estimated cost, with the majority of labor costs representing the salaries and benefits of caregivers; (11) the estimated cost per child-hour varied significantly for different age groups, from $5.41 for infants, to $4.28 for toddlers, to $3.24 for preschoolers; (12) child-hour costs are higher for younger children because quality standards for young children require more caregivers per child; (13) because almost half the children that the Air Force centers serve are under the age of 3, the centers' total costs and costs per child-hour are higher than if they served a smaller proportion of children under the age of 3; (14) when adjusted for age distribution of the children, the costs of high-quality care in Air Force and civilian centers were not substantially different; and (15) the adjustment reduced the Air Force cost per child-hour from $3.86 to $3.42, which is about 7 percent higher than the cost in civilian centers.

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