Access to quality education and persistent transition problems for military children are continuing sources of frustration for military families and affects retention across all services. Recently, Lt Gen Anthony Cotton, Commander of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, disclosed that in 2017, 56 percent of Airmen accepting an assignment to Air War College at Maxwell elected to attend the year-long school without their families. The Air War College is the primary institution responsible for preparing future Air Force leaders, yet the commander expressed the difficulty of recruiting high caliber professors and permanent party personnel to teach and work at the school. Survey results of inbound students communicated that an underlying cause is the lack of access to quality public school education in the greater Montgomery area. The problem is not limited to the Air Force and Maxwell Air Force Base, as the Army Chief of Staff previously identified similar concerns and directed an evaluation of all schools supporting Army communities and their ability to meet the Army’s baseline education standards.
My father served in the Air Force and relocated our family seven times in 20 years until electing to retire from military service when my brother and I were entering high school. He made this decision, despite having a pending promotion to colonel, because his children were enrolled in a favorable school. Remaining in the military would have required we move and attend two to three different high schools, hindering our preparation for college.
As I now approach 20 years of service and my family’s tenth relocation, I face a similar dilemma. I was selected to attend Air War College in 2018 and was looking forward to a year focusing on my professional development as an officer and enjoying some much needed time with my family. As I prepared my family for the move, we struggled to find quality education for our daughter in high school. I contacted the school liaison office and after multiple unanswered phone calls and unreturned e-mails, I received a short response noting that a certain public school was “pretty” good. Through research, I learned of other private school options and a magnate school system that seemed promising though required a lengthy application and interview process to enroll. Thankfully, my daughter was accepted at the magnate school and my family was ready to move to Montgomery, Alabama. At the last minute, I was offered my current assignment to Washington D.C., and as a family we reviewed our options. The better schools in northern Virginia weighed considerably in our final decision to divert the assignment to D.C.
Families who choose to home school their children do so to pursue educational continuity, provide flexibility with military move timelines, and to avoid the stress of transition to a new school, the adjustment to a new teacher, falling behind because of a new curriculum, or to provide education in a religious environment.
All military families experience frustration and difficult choices associated with moving. According to a survey of 5,650 military and veterans conducted in 2017 by the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN), 43 percent of military families had elected to live separately from the active military member at some point in their career, with 21 percent citing a need for continuity in their children’s education. This highlights concerns families have expressed with the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which all 50 states and school systems across the country have signed. The intent of the compact is to provide common guidelines for resolving challenges military children experience in transferring between school systems, but the implementation is less than perfect. The lack of standardization and application of the Interstate Compact between disparate school systems is particularly challenging for students in secondary education working towards graduation requirements.
As a personal example, my daughter, who is in 10th grade, is required to take 9th grade history and 9th grade biology because they are Virginia graduation requirements. Her school in Virginia would not give credit for business and integrated science courses she took last year and that are required in Oregon. Moving between multiple locations, all with different educational requirements for graduation, becomes exceedingly difficult for the military families to navigate. Moreover, children may feel like they are behind their peers in the new school and are further challenged to integrate socially while taking classes with different age groups. Overall, this makes transitioning to a new school more stressful for the children and their families.
The MFAN survey also identified that approximately 9 percent of military families have elected to remove their children from the public education system and pursue homeschooling. The Military Children Education Coalition (MCEC) estimated in 2016 that “among the 1.2 million children of active-duty parents, more than 6 percent are homeschooled.” However, estimates on the percentage of military children being homeschooled are extremely difficult and constantly changing based on the families moving to new locations approximately every three years, according to John Ballantyne, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of MCEC.1 Additionally, Ballantyne said, “Military families that elect to homeschool assume 100 percent of associated costs on their own. There is no financial support provided by DoD or the service. Costs include: curriculum, supplies and equipment, homeschool group dues, field trips, extracurricular activities, transportation, and spouse’s lost income. Some installations try and establish ‘homeschool groups,’ but it’s not a consistent practice.” The cost of homeschool curriculums can vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on the complexity of course work and grade of the student.
Families who choose to home school their children do so to pursue educational continuity, provide flexibility with military move timelines, and to avoid the stress of transition to a new school, the adjustment to a new teacher, falling behind because of a new curriculum, or to provide education in a religious environment. CMSgt Adam Rising, Senior Enlisted Advisor for the Defense Contract Management Agency, has homeschooled his children at three different assignments across the United States.2 Homeschooling allows CMSgt Rising to spend more quality time with his children and have more direct impact in their learning, while mitigating the disruption of frequent moves. “Students lose continuity in their education if new schools are substandard or do not offer curriculum that suits their chosen education path during multiple moves. Homeschooling helps preserve continuity while providing flexibility to adapt to new opportunities at new assignments,” he said. Additionally, homeschooling offers more time together and greater flexibility with military moves. “We could take vacations together when my work schedule allowed which did not always revolve around the public-school schedules. Additionally, PCS assignments were not directly impacted by the public-school schedule.”
In the Air Force, Airman and Family Readiness Centers (A&FRC) offer Airmen and families a central location to learn about available resources, organizations, and agencies that can assist with educational challenges, but it is unclear what resources A&FRCs provide to Airmen and their families who elect to pursue homeschool education as it varies based upon the personal preferences of the school liaison officers (SLO). Since there are no established standards for homeschool support, some SLOs have established robust support programs as will be discussed with Joint-Base Anacostia-Bolling. Other installations provide no support, as homeschooling is considered a personal choice of the families and not the purview of the SLO. CMSgt Rising thinks that school liaison officers and A&FRCs should be adequately equipped with information on local homeschool groups, state laws, and other considerations. He also thinks it would be useful for A&FRCs to provide classes to “help familiarize parents with the homeschooling option or promote support groups for families that choose to homeschool. Some states offer free homeschooling within the public-school system. I think it would help military families greatly if the DoD provided similar options, especially to those serving overseas, as many families choose to homeschool at personal expense.”
Increasing support for families who elect to homeschool their children, while important, will not resolve the underlying problem of inadequate public school opportunities. Many military families (single parent or both employed) will be unable to take advantage of the benefits of homeschooling. Ultimately, providing access to quality public schools near our military installations must be addressed. In 2001, the Army funded the Secondary Education Transition Study by MCEC. According to Ballantyne, one of the key findings of this study was the need for SLOs to represent command interests, to support military connected kids, and to coordinate with the local community and public education providers. Each of the military services has implemented these school liaison programs at their installations. However, the support services provided vary among the services and installations. For example, the Air Force SLOs and their associated programs are not held to or inspected to the same high standards as the Army or Navy programs and information provided to support families is inconsistent from one base to the next. Additionally, Air Force SLOs often hold the position as an additional duty to another primary responsibility.
Kim Crutchfield, SLO for Joint-Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB) and an Army spouse, helps run one of the largest and most diverse school assistance programs in the Department of Defense.3 JBAB leaders took the initiative to coordinate directly with public officials in Washington D.C., to ensure military families have access to adequate public schools. Children of military families living on base are zoned to two of the most high-risk schools in the area, and with a history of school violence. Local community leaders and base officials recognized this problem and worked together to identify solutions, including signing a military directive allowing military children to be bused to a public school of the family’s choosing. Additionally, the Navy rents a bus at a cost of $1 million per year to transport them to and from the base. Finally, JBAB has worked directly with the school principals of more favorable schools to accept military children when schools are close to, or exceeding enrollment numbers. Crutchfield also shared the success of the SLOs in Hawaii who have worked directly with school principals to gain a geographic exception for military children, thus allowing them to attend the school of their preference if the families provided their own transportation.
In addition to improving access to quality public schools in the area, Crutchfield’s office supports over 80 families and 200 military children who are homeschooled in the area. As the homeschooling program has grown in recent years, the SLO has worked directly with the families to help establish one of the largest and most successful programs in the country. These efforts allow families access to base facilities such as the base theater to host spring musicals, the old Officers Club for choral concerts, the Youth Center gymnasium for Physical Education courses, the Arts and Crafts center for art classes, and a house within base housing at which the families hold group music and education classes. Additionally, the Liaison Office has organized an advisory board to help homeschool educators share their experiences, discover new courseware, and work with Friendship Charter Public School which provides families a free computer and military discounted courseware for kindergarten through 8th grade.
The challenge of finding quality education for our military children persists across the country and across all military services. While pursuing the objective of securing quality education for military children, the Department of Defense should strive for solutions that create greater understanding of the challenges of military families and increases the bonds between military members and society. Furthermore, improving public school education opportunities will not only benefit our military families, but society in general. The good news is, solutions to these problems do not need to wait for a directive from the secretary of defense nor any of the service secretaries. There is no need for another study, conference, or council to tell us that there is a problem with access to quality public education near many of our military installations. Best practices can be gleaned from those military installations and communities such as Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, which has engaged directly with its local community leaders and educators to provide services for their military families. Now is the time for military commanders, service members, and families to engage with their local communities to improve academic opportunities for our military children and increase understanding between military families and the communities they serve.
Improve access to quality public school education
- Commanders at the base and installation level: reach out to the school chancellors and community leaders; ensure access to quality public schools through increased engagement and advocacy. Start with an honest and frank discussion, such as a town hall meeting, regarding how the school system is lacking and what specifically the military families are requesting.
- Bolster and standardize the School Liaison Officer programs (specifically the Air Force program). Provide military families resources regarding what public and private education opportunities are available at their new assignment and what deadlines exist to apply to and enroll in those schools. School Liaison Officers: work with local schools to identify accommodations or waivers for military families who receive assignments to locations where enrollment and application timelines have passed. This also applies to child care services and pre-school enrollments.
- Notify military personnel assigned to installations with known challenges regarding access to adequate public education via their orders and provide contact information for the School Liaison Officer to start working solutions before arriving at the new duty location.
- Installation commanders: pursue geographic exceptions; work directly with school principals to enroll military families in public schools of their choosing; and provide transportation services or assist families in coordinating carpools.
Support Homeschool Families
- Establish support structures for families interested in homeschooling, including advice on curriculum options, available base facilities to provide academic courses, assistance establishing homeschool groups, and information on state certification and inspection requirements.
- Organize community outreach activities to bring homeschool families together.
- Offer financial support for military families utilizing homeschool programs or private education when adequate public-school education is not available.
Brad Orgeron is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force and a military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Read more in the CNAS Military, Veterans and Society Program's "Supporting the Military Community" commentary series.
- Interview with John Ballantyne, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Military Child Education Coalition, 30 Aug 2018. ↩
- Interview with CMSgt Adam Rising, Senior Enlisted Advisor, Defense Contract Management Agency, 31 August 2018. ↩
- Interview with Kim Crutchfield, School Liasion Officer Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, 29 August 2018. ↩