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Military kids' education may turn on 2 studies

Aug. 20, 2014 - 10:15AM   |  
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Two studies that could affect the future of military children’s education are in their final stages, officials said.

A Rand Corp. study is looking at whether the Defense Department needs to continue operating schools on installations in the continental U.S. That study is expected to be ready for DoD leadership review in late summer, said Frank O’Gara, spokesman for the Department of Defense Education Activity. The schools being reviewed are collectively referred to as Department of Defense Elementary and Secondary Schools.

Once the review is finished, information will be provided publicly, O’Gara said.

An Army study evaluating the performance of public schools near its installations is also reportedly finished or near completion. Results have not yet been briefed to Army senior leadership, said Laurie Dette, spokeswoman for the Army Installation Management Command. It’s not known when it will be publicly released, she said.

But sources said the study results have been given to Army installation commanders for their review. Before the study began, Army officials said they were collecting school performance data from publicly available national, state and district sources to identify how schools are performing based on their own state standards and national benchmarks.

That study was ordered by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who said last October that the Army will use the information to put pressure on officials responsible for providing education.

He said lawmakers often ask him how they can help. “I’m going to tell them what they can do for me: If they want to keep the military in their communities, they’d better start paying attention to the schools that are outside and inside our installations, because as we evaluate and as we make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria,” Odierno said in October.

The separate DDESS study is being conducted by the Department of Defense Education Activity, along with the DoD comptroller and Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation office. The study is being done through a contract with Rand at a cost of $905,000.

The DDESS study is referred to as the CONUS Education Options Assessment, and it involves a review of the DDESS schools and other education options that most effectively balance cost and quality considerations for the 23,000 students now attending DDESS schools.

For school year 2013-2014, the budget was about $375 million to operate 60 schools on 15 military installations within the continental U.S.

Three studies since 1986 have considered the idea of closing or transferring DDESS schools to local public school districts.

The latest study is considering five alternatives: continuing to operate DDESS schools; closing them and transferring students to public school districts; transferring students and control of schools to public school districts; establishing a new state local education agency covering the installation area; and transitioning to charter schools.

Rand researchers have gathered feedback on the schools from a number of organizations, including the National Military Family Association.

“From our perspective, the schools are popular with parents, and they’re popular with commanders,” said Eileen Huck, NMFA deputy government relations director. “Any change would have to be carefully considered because of the impact” on military children and families.

She said she is aware that researchers have talked to some parents.

She noted that the DDESS issue is also being studied by the Military Retirement and Compensation Modernization Commission, and that hopefully no big changes would happen before the commission releases its report early next year.

“Whatever happens, our military kids need a quality education, and DoD needs to have a role in ensuring that,” Huck said.

Researchers also have talked with the Military Child Education Coalition and the Military Impacted Schools Association.

“We had good communications with the Rand folks and gave them a number of concerns in regards to impact aid funding, which helps public schools educate the military-connected child and their classmates,“ said Kyle Fairbairn, executive director of MISA. “If that many children were put into public schools, with no increased funding for impact aid, all schools serving these kids would see a drastic decrease in funding.”

The Federal Education Association emphasized to researchers the high achievement of DDESS students and the problems that could crop up if operations are significantly altered.

“Our primary concern is that the researchers and those who review the final product might focus only on cutting costs and ignore the overwhelming negatives that would hurt the quality of education for students, both DDESS students and students in the local communities, if the government fails to fulfill its obligations to military families,” said Gary Hritz, spokesman for FEA. “Equally bad would be an attempt to turn the schools into charter schools.”

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