Universal Pre-K at DoD Schools, Flexible Spending Accounts for Child Care: DoD Unveils New Family Initiatives

a kindergarten teacher at Mokapu Elementary School
Anita Robertson, a kindergarten teacher at Mokapu Elementary School, asks students to raise their hand for their favorite color during the school's kindergarten open house held July 28, 2015. (Christine Cabalo/U.S. Marine Corps)

New benefits are coming for U.S. service members with families, including programs designed to ease the financial burden and stress of raising children in today's tough economic environment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced new initiatives Wednesday to help cut into the cost of child care and broaden spouse employment, including universal pre-kindergarten at Department of Defense Education Activity Schools in the next five years and flexible spending accounts for child care expenses, allowing service members to set aside $5,000 in pretax income.

In a memo to senior leaders and commanders, Austin said the department has to "do much more to ensure the well-being and success of our people."

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"It is the Department's ongoing moral duty to spare our outstanding people stress and struggle on the homefront where we can -- and to show our service members and civilian employees how much they mean to us with tangible support that makes a genuine difference in their lives," Austin wrote in his memo.

The initiatives include expanding the flexible spending accounts for child care already available to civilian DoD employees to service members. Under the program, troops will be able to set aside $5,000 in pretax income through payroll deductions.

These accounts can help reduce a service member's overall tax burden by deducting funds from paychecks before taxes are taken out.

Austin also directed Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gil Cisneros to work with the service secretaries to make the benefit available "as soon as possible," and for the services to educate their members on how the benefit can help them.

The secretary also promised that universal pre-kindergarten would be available at DoD schools within five years, but that benefit will largely depend on the fiscal 2024 budget process. Austin said he would use $90 million in funding that is included in the department's proposed fiscal 2024 budget, which is currently under consideration in Congress.

Citing data that shows children who attend preschool are 50% more likely to finish high school and go on to college or trade schools, Austin said he looks forward to "working with Congress to fund this program."

The announcement also includes good news for military spouses hoping to access the DoD's My Career Advancement Account -- a program that provides up to $4,000 in financial assistance to earn professional licenses, certificates or associate's degrees. Effective immediately, according to the memo, the program will be broadened to include the spouses of service members in paygrades E-6 and O-3.

"Data shows that the first cohort of spouses who used this benefit were more likely to be employed and earn more compared to those who did not participate," Austin wrote.

Other efforts aimed at improving family life include promoting the new military parental leave policies, which provide 12 weeks of paid leave to service members with a new child in addition to the convalescent leave awarded to members who give birth, and continuing efforts to ensure that military spouses' professional licenses are portable across state lines, ensuring that they can more easily work as they move from duty station to duty station.

And Austin pledged to improve the Exceptional Family Member Program across the military services. The program furnishes services and support to families with special needs, such as those with chronic medical conditions or disabilities.

Austin directed Cisneros to make improvements to the program within 90 days, standardizing enrollment and disenrollment across the services, directing support personnel to contact each enrolled family personally at least once a year, and improving oversight by requiring the service secretaries to submit quarterly data on their EFMP programs.

According to the memo, Military OneSource, the one-stop direct support network for military families, will assign EFMP families a specialty consultant "to help foster deeper relationships and provide better continuity of support."

The full text of Austin's memo can be found here.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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