Full-day universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds is being considered by Department of Defense officials, one of several efforts under way that would open learning opportunities for more military children through the Department of Defense Education Activity.

Other efforts include an ongoing pilot program that allows some military children living outside the installation to apply to attend on-base DoD schools in the continental U.S.; and a pilot program that allows military children in rural areas to apply for the DoDEA Virtual High School.

A decision from DoD leadership is expected within a few weeks on DoDEA’s proposal to offer free, full-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-old children on installations with DoDEA schools, said Thomas Brady, director of DoDEA, in a recent interview with Military Times.

Their proposal asks for the authority and funds to offer the universal pre-kindergarten. “I’m very heartened by the fact that it’s gotten positive and thoughtful comments in the process as we have gone through the bureaucracy,” he said, noting that senior leadership in DoD’s personnel and readiness division are “big advocates for DoDEA universal pre-K.”

Details would have to be worked out on where and how the 4-year-old pre-K would be offered, and how DoDEA would work with on-base child development centers and family child care homes, which offer programs for 4-year-olds. One source said it could be a combination of locations, with DoDEA elementary schools being the likely location for 4-year-olds overseas.

Military family advocates have supported pre-kindergarten for military children. The Biden administration’s proposal to offer universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year old American children failed to make it into law this year. But advocates noted that the proposed legislation wouldn’t have included DoDEA schools.

“Our goal is to get universal pre-k for OCONUS DoD schools, then ensure it’s available to CONUS,” said Jen Goodale, director of military family policy and spouse programs for the Military Officers Association of America.

She said MOAA is reaching out to the military school liaisons and to child and youth program directors, to get their input about universal pre-k. These school liaisons are links between military parents, installation leaders and education officials on base and in the local communities.

Supporters of universal pre-k contend that high-quality, earlier education can make a positive difference in a child’s future. Some states have pre-kindergarten programs, but it’s a patchwork of different programs and eligibility. There has been some concern about the impact on staffing, enrollment and fee structures of child development centers.

Universal pre-K for 4-year-olds could extend beyond the gates of the installation and eligibility to attend DoDEA schools. Brady said DoD officials have asked how the program could be expanded to installations nationwide, so that military children in areas where there are no DoDEA schools would have access to the program. A decision hasn’t been made yet, but there could possibly be a study on how to expand universal pre-K to military children across the board, he said.

“Our position is that we fully support it … but we have an opportunity to do it for DoDEA. Let’s go ahead and start that, and then assist in how we can do it in other places,” Brady said.

There has long been a critical shortage of child care for military families in many locations. If a DoDEA program were open to all 4-year-old military children, it could fill some of the need for families, said Caitlin Hamon, deputy director for government relations of the National Military Family Association.

“There are a lot of benefits to early education,” she said. “Many military child development centers are already overwhelmed. This provides another venue for child education and child care,” she said, adding it also provides some stability and continuity in education for mobile military children.

DoDEA operates 160 schools in 11 foreign countries, seven states, Guam and Puerto Rico, with more than 66,000 students. The vast majority of military children in the United States attend schools off post.

Pilot program allows more military kids in DoDEA schools

A pilot program allowing children of active duty members who live off base to apply to attend on-base DoDEA schools is going strong, Brady said. It’s being tested at four of the 13 installations in the U.S. where DoDEA operates schools for military children. Normally, the schools are open only to military children who live on the installation. Parents in the pilot program provide the transportation to and from schools for their children.

“It’s no surprise that it’s been remarkably well-received,” said Brady. The pilot program started in 2021 with Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, and has expanded to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; and Naval Support Facility Dahlgren, Virginia.

Officials haven’t yet determined whether the program will be expanded to other locations.

“Prudently, we have to finish the pilot and then have to figure how many additional resources it would take to expand it to other installations in the U.S., because quite frankly, it’s very, very expensive,” Brady said. “We’d have to have full support from the services, and we’d have to request that we continue this expansion.

“Right now we’re very pleased. We’re getting some very good statistics of interest, so then we go to the next step, which is do the services want this expanded, and are we willing to pay to get these additional resources to make it happen.”

There are limitations on how many children can be accepted because of space and the number of teachers they can hire, he said.

At Maxwell AFB, there were 330 applications from military parents wanting their children to attend, and so far they’ve approved 113, Brady said. At Camp Lejeune, there were 465 applications, and 141 have received approval. “The takeaway is that we’re delighted that we have quality schools that parents are comfortable with sending their children,” Brady said.

NMFA’s Hamon said she’s heard positive comments from military families about the pilot program.

“DoDEA has a set of education standards much more aligned across the board. So no matter where they PCS, families can get continuity of education.” She recently attended an event for school liaison officers, and they “were raving about the pilot program, so they seem to be happy with it, as well.”

Offering DoDEA virtual high school to more military kids

Another ongoing pilot program is allowing military children in rural areas or who are home-schooled to enroll in DoDEA’s Virtual High School. There are currently 40 students enrolled in the Expanded Eligibility Pilot Program, with 50 course enrollments. Students are limited to two courses per academic year. The most popular courses are foreign languages, computer software coding and Advanced Placement courses. Students don’t have to be connected to an installation where there’s a DoDEA school, and they’re currently located across the U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, Texas and Louisiana. The pilot program’s definition of “rural” is tied to the definition in a federal housing law, based on population and other factors.

The virtual high school serves students in grades 9 through 12. This pilot program is for students who aren’t currently eligible to enroll in the virtual high school and require extra courses to meet graduation requirements in their current state, or otherwise demonstrate a clear need to participate in the virtual high school program.

“It’s pretty interesting. We’re keeping an eye on this one,” Brady said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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