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Gazette Premium Content Bill could help with military child care

BARBARA COTTER Updated: February 24, 2011 at 12:00 am

A bill that appears to be breezing through the Colorado Legislature would help extend child-care subsidies to military families who use facilities that are off-base or off-post.

“This is the most important military bill I’ve run in the past four years,” said Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan, who sponsored the bill in the Colorado House. “This is the biggest issue I’ve heard from military families in my district: good-quality care for their children.”

The bill’s advocates say there are intertwined issues that necessitate the legislation. First is a shortage of openings for child care on Colorado military bases and posts. Second are barriers that prevent families from transferring child-care subsidies from on-base to off-base facilities. And third is a dearth of off-base centers that meet rigorous Department of Defense standards, which is a must for families to use the subsidies.

“We are not currently meeting the expectations of the soldiers,” says Diane Price, CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, who helped Looper with the bill and spoke on its behalf at the Legislature. “They have an expectation of quality, that their children will be placed in facilities that meet the standards of the DOD, and off-post facilities are just not operating at that level.”

The bill, which passed the House unanimously and is being considered by the Senate, essentially opens the door to Colorado’s participation in a 10-state Department of Defense pilot program to encourage off-base child care centers to build up to DOD standards, Price said. Participation is voluntary, and five centers statewide can participate at a time.

“This allows us ... to move those centers to a higher level of quality, thus allowing those centers to be able to serve military families, and allow those families to use those subsidies,” Price said.

Four of the nine centers Price oversees, as well as child care centers at Pikes Peak Community College, are already eligible for a limited number of subsidized slots because they’ve been able to get to get the accreditation that signifies adherence to DOD standards, Price said. But getting to that level is an expense and commitment that many centers can’t afford, and the need for subsidized off-base child care is too pressing to wait for the planned construction of additional on-base facilities, Price and other advocates of the legislation say.

So the pilot program makes it less burdensome for child care centers to get on DOD’s list of approved providers by allowing them to incrementally beef up their quality without the need for DOD-recognized accreditation to get the subsidies, Price said.

“That level of accreditation is only achieved by 8 percent of centers nationwide,” Price said. “This is an opportunity for centers to improve their quality systematically. With accreditation, it’s all or nothing.”

Price said child care centers that take part in the pilot program will work with the Department of Human Services, child advocacy groups and even other centers on improving their quality, which might include beefing up their early-childhood teaching program and providing more teacher training. Price said the program will generate a quality rating improvement system, which could incorporate star ratings that military bases can quickly eye to determine whether a facility is eligible for the subsidy program.

One possible deterrent to participation is that there’s no government money available to pay for improvements, but Looper said there might be grants available to help the centers, and some measures might be easy and inexpensive to implement. And participation could pay off in the long run for centers in the form of more children of military families and the subsidies that follow them.

“You hope if they upgrade and expand their ability to accept more kids, they’d make more money because they do have more children in the facilities,” said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who also spoke on behalf of the bill at the Legislature. “I think it’s a really positive step forward to not only helping our military families, but in raising the bar for early childhood education, so we’re not just babysitting.”

ON FORT CARSON:

Fort Carson is one of the state’s military installations with pressing child care needs, especially for children up to 5 years old. A spokesman says there are 750 full-time spaces on the post for that age group, with a waiting list of 237. The post has plans to open two centers in August, with one for age newborn to 10 and another for age newborn to 5. A third will open in October for age newborn to 5, and a fourth in November for ages 6-10. However, about 70 percent to 75 percent of Fort Carson troops live off the post, hinting at the need for off-post child care.

Source: Fort Carson

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