Jobs, Education and EFMP: Here's What Spouses Need to Know from the Upcoming Defense Law

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Jobs, Education and EFMP
A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in the evening. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

An annual law that could go into effect before the end of the year has a bevy of updates for military members, including a 3% pay raise and an order to halt some changes at military hospitals. But buried deep in the document, which you can read here, are other changes and orders that could impact military spouses and families.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an annual package of legislation governing military policy and spending. Before the 2021 version goes into law, it must be signed by President Donald Trump.

Here's a rundown of some of the things in it that could impact military families.

It Would Standardize EFMP Across All Branches

The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is a Pentagon system that identifies dependents who need specialized medical or educational services, helps them find those services, and ensures that families do not get stationed at a location where the help isn't available or makes the problems worse. While registering with EFMP is designed to protect your family from being sent somewhere that could cause problems, it also could mean you never get to move to Hawaii or Germany, as well as explain why remote assignments aren't a possibility.

But each branch's EFMP program is slightly different. As more installations are home to multiple services, inconsistencies are a growing problem.

Military family advocates have long tried to get the program standardized across the DoD. Now, Congress has stepped in and ordered that change as part of the 2021 NDAA.

That means EFMP families should have an easier time in the future getting services after a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move and be able to access a standard respite care benefit and consistent case management at each installation. The law orders this to be in place no later than six months from the time the president signs the bill.

DoDEA Must Change Teacher Ratios and Keep a Virtual High School Program

Education is a hot topic for military families, as many of them choose where to live in a given area based on the quality of the schools. Student-teacher ratios are often seen as one school choice fact.

Under the new law, Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) Schools, which operate on some military bases stateside and most bases overseas, will be required to keep a maximum ratio of 18 students to one teacher for classes from kindergarten to third grade.

For grades four through 12, the ratio rule will be based on a system-wide average for that grade from the 2019-2020 school year. For example, the maximum student-to-teacher ratio for each fifth-grade class will be based on the 2019-2020 school year average across all fifth-grade classes in the system.

Nationally, the average ratio across all grades is 16 to one. California has the highest ratio with an average of 24 students to each teacher.

The law also creates two pilot programs for DoDEA. The first lets students who live off base enroll at on-base DoDEA schools on a space-available basis.

The second opens a virtual high school program to up to 400 students over four years and allows them to take up to two classes through the program each year. To qualify, students must be in 9th to 12th grade; priority will be given to students in rural areas or who are currently homeschooling, according to the law. Officials with the National Military Family Association said they expect to learn more about what DoDEA wants to do with that pilot program soon.

Changes for On-Base Child Care Options

Need 24-hour child care because you or your spouse works rotating shifts? The NDAA orders a study on how many troops actually need 24/7 child care options, where those troops are located, and whether increasing child care financial assistance is a better option than providing around-the-clock care on base.

The new law also calls for bumping on-base, in-home child care providers up the housing priority list if they agree to provide care for at least a year.

Finally, it also orders a five-location pilot program to help service members pay for in-home child care, such as nannies, no later than March 1, 2021. The legislation itself doesn't offer a lot of direction, so its implementation will be up to the DoD, said officials with the National Military Family Association. It also doesn't lay out how much the subsidy will be. The pilot locations are to be based on overall local child care needs.

Updates for Companies Joining the Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) Program

MSEP connects businesses that are interested in hiring military spouses with a network of potential employees through Military OneSource and the Pentagon's spouse employment program. The new law orders the DoD to take a look at who qualifies for the program, with a special note to make sure they are including local small businesses, companies that have remote or telework options, educational institutions of all grade levels, and software and coding companies. The law also would order a report on that review, including information on the number of spouses who have applied for the program, the number of new jobs posted each month, and how long the jobs are available before being filled or removed.

Even More Studies on a Variety of Military Spouse Issues

Often, Congress orders studies in preparation for (or to avoid) making actual policy changes. Among the new studies ordered in the NDAA:

  • A study on Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) contributions by military spouses.
  • A study on prenatal and postpartum mental health conditions among service members and dependents.
  • A study of online scams targeting troops and families, including predatory loans and degree programs and medical scams. The study will also look at targeted "ethnic or racial violence messages" and include an intelligence report on whether any foreign governments are involved in the scams.

--Rebecca Alwine can be reached at rebecca.alwine@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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