How tough it is for military families is underscored in a recent Department of Defense survey. The findings show that spouses are fed up with military life. The survey found that the percentage of military spouses who say they are happy with military life and support their spouse staying in the service has sunk to the lowest point in nearly a decade.
The employment issue is particularly important because of its direct connection to military readiness. If a military family is suffering financial stress, and the spouse has difficulty getting a job, then the service member is less likely to stay in the armed forces, at a time when recruitment and retention are major concerns for the leadership. In fact, nearly 70 percent of married service members say their spouse’s ability to maintain a career has a moderate-to-large impact on their decision to stay in the military.
Lawmakers and the administration are mobilizing to correct the longstanding problem faced by military families. Among the remedies in the works: Congress is weighing a measure that would give employers a federal tax credit for hiring a military spouse. The Department of Defense is piloting a new fellowship program that pairs military spouses with companies across various industries. The federal government and state governments are working to allow military spouses to transfer certain occupational licenses across states so that they can continue employment as the service member is reassigned around the country.
But more can be done at the state level. The nation’s governors and chief state school officers should ensure the portability of retirement benefits for those military spouses who work in K-12 schools or who are seeking to work in them.
Nearly all educator spouses of active-duty service members are effectively unable to accumulate retirement benefits equivalent to their non-military spouse peers due to existing regulations governing public education retirement. The result is the military spouse either works in the K-12 field at a substantial financial penalty, or they are driven to work in other fields. This is at a time when the nation is experiencing shortages of qualified teachers and military spouses could help fill the demand.
The solution is straightforward but requires all states with substantial military populations to agree. States should establish retirement program exemptions for qualified military spouses that allow for immediate vesting and portability. This can be in the style of a 401(k)/403(b) retirement program, allowing military spouses to maintain equivalent benefits to their civilian peers. Local education agencies and eligible individuals would collectively contribute to the account.
Some states are already contemplating action on the issue. For example, the North Dakota legislature has called for a task force to study how the state might be a model for the rest of the nation. This is thanks to the foresight and leadership of Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota’s state superintendent of public instruction.
The financial stress on military families is a front-and-center national security problem. And even more so now that recruitment is a major concern and retention is more vital than ever. Lawmakers at the state and federal levels can do their part by removing obstacles to employment and paving the way for the fair treatment of education professionals who are also military spouses.
Marcus Lingenfelter, chair of the K-12 education taskforce at the Association of Defense Communities, is chief policy officer at Cognia, a non-profit that helps improve the performance of school systems.