Wednesday, July 08, 2015

The Army Plays the Education and Economic Cards

Supporters of Common Core, the much-maligned effort to set national education standards--have picked up an unusual and (potentially) important ally: the U.S. Army.

But don't look for a ringing, public endorsement from military leaders, or an Army-sponsored web page touting the benefits of Common Core.  At this point, the service's support of the initiative could be described as indirect, but it's clear the Army would like to see the adoption of Common Core, despite objections from parents, elected officials and even many educators.

Why is the Army treading on the edge of a potential minefield?  The story begins almost two years ago, in October 2013.  Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odinero was participating in a military family forum.  Such events are rarely newsworthy, and members of the armed forces community might argue they are rarely productive.  But it does provide an opportunity for service members and their families to share their concerns with senior officers, whether it be the base commander, the commanding general, or in this case, the chief of staff.

And the brass does pay attention, even if promised "fixes" are slow to materialize.  Commanders and general officers understand that even something as basic as operating hours at the local commissary impact morale and even the mission.  The days when most soldiers were single and lived in the barracks have long since passed; today, senior leaders must think in terms of military families and a host of related issues.

That's why General Odierno used the family forum to veer from the planned agenda and issue a challenge with far-reaching ramifications for public education, and military communities around the nation.  Odierno's comments were re-printed in a recent Stimson Center report on education and the Army:

“If I could just add something,” General Odierno stated. I get governors and I get congressmen who ask me all the time what they can do for me, and I'm going to tell them what they can do for me.  If they want to keep the military in their communities, they better start paying attention to the schools are outside and inside our installations.  Because as we evaluate and make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria." 

True to his word, Odierno commissioned a study on the performance of local schools that serve at least 200 Army-affiliated students.  The review, conducted by WestEd, has never been released, but service officials have discussed its findings with representatives of local school districts serving Army installations around the country.  According to Military Times, the WestEd survey revealed a mixed bag; many military schools perform at or above the level of other schools in the state, but some rank much lower.  And, given the fact that each state has different educational standards, it's almost impossible for a military family to compare their child's former elementary school in Texas, versus the new one they'll be attending in Virginia.  Or Alaska.  Or Missouri.  

So, where does Common Core fit in all of this?  In 2012, the Defense Department adopted the standards as the baseline for all the schools it operates on military bases, in the CONUS and overseas.  And, since Common Core represents the only "national standard," Pentagon officials believe it should also be used in public schools that serve military installations.  

Of course, many state and local officials vehemently disagree.  As the Stimson report notes, several states with huge Army installations including Texas (home to Fort Bliss and Fort Hood); Virginia (Fort Lee and Fort Eustis) and Alaska (Fort Wainwright) have never adopted Common Core.  Oklahoma (which hosts Fort Sill) initially adopted the standards, then reversed its decision.  That's the beauty of the American model, which--rightfully--keeps most educational decision-making at the state and local level. 

How does the military plan to overcome this (ahem) "inertia?"  Take another look at General Odierno's comments at that family forum two years ago.  The "quality" of local schools is now a determining factor in whether a base stays open or gets shuttered.  The Army is already taking steps to integrate local school quality in the evaluation criteria for an installation's viability.  Obviously, a closure decision won't be based solely on the performance of public schools outside the gate, but it will be a consideration.  That's a clear warning shot across the bow for school officials (and politicians) who oversee crummy schools, or might be dragging their feet on Common Core. 

And to drive home their point, the Army is pulling out the economic stick.  The Stimson assessment identifies 19 installations which generate at least 15% of the earned income in their host counties, and in some locations, the economic impact is much higher.  In Chattahoochee County, Georgia, Fort Benning contributes 90% of every dollar earned; the economic impact is almost as high in home counties for Fort Riley, Kansas (which contributes 67% of every dollar); Fort Stewart, Georgia (61%) and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (59%).   Obviously, the closure of these installations (or a significant down-sizing) would have a devastating impact on the local economy.  

Even in areas with a more diversified economic base, the loss of an installation--or the removal of key units and missions--would take a heavy toll.  Fort Bragg generates about 43% of the annual income in Cumberland County, North Carolina, and Fort Lee contributes more than one-third of the income in Price George, County Virginia.  The Army's thinly-veiled threat is simple: if local schools don't shape up, the installation they serve could be in jeopardy.  

But the service's message may not carry that much weight.  The Army can't afford to "move" a sprawling post like Bragg or Fort Hood to another location; the cost of acquiring tens of thousands of acres, building new facilities and moving units en mass is simply prohibitive.  So, it's a safe bet that posts housing large armor or infantry units will remain open, even if the local schools don't measure up.  However, the Army could limit future construction at those locations, or red-line them as destinations for units leaving bases targeted for closure--assuming the mission isn't adversely affected. 

That's not to say the military shouldn't be concerned about the schools that educate its dependent population.  Ask anyone who made the service a career (your humble correspondent included) and you'll hear horror stories about kids who went from a great school to a failing institution, simply because of a military PCS.  In an era when most military members are married with children, the quality of local schools is a vitally important issue.  But that does not mean the Army should be dictating curriculum choices, or brow-beating state and local officials to adopt certain standards.  

In fact, there are far better solutions to the problem.  While many are familiar with DoD-run schools at overseas bases, the Pentagon also operates 194 schools at various CONUS installations, and most score as well (or better) than their local counterparts in standardized test results.  Building and staff a new school isn't cheap, but in areas where public education lags, an on-base military school would provide better instruction.  However, the curriculum would be based on common core, which (as previously noted) has already been embraced by DoD. 

Maybe the best idea is the one nobody mentions: vouchers.  The Pentagon pays millions to local schools districts every year for the education of military dependents.  If a local school is failing, give service members the option of putting their children in better-performing private schools.  The voucher would be based on the amount of "impact aid" received by the district each year (Washington pays out over $1 billion annual to school systems that are affected by government activities, ranging from the presence of a military installation, to disproportionate ownership of local land by the federal government).  Parents would be responsible for any difference between what the voucher covers, and what the school charges for tuition and fees.  

Military kids deserve a quality education.  But trying to push Common Core on reluctant districts--while dropping hints about future base closures--is clearly the wrong approach. The incoming Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, would be well advised to tread lightly and explore the full range of options. 



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