Quality of public schools can be a BRAC factor

Opinion

While Congress balks at the Department of Defense’s request for a new round of base closings to sweep away excess installations, the military is quietly taking steps to size up the value of bases in preparation for potentially dramatic action at the local level.

In an effort to influence the assessments, military communities are emphasizing their respective value — beyond military utility, as the armed forces factor in nontraditional qualities that to a large degree are in the control of any given local community.

One of those is the rigor of education that children of service members receive from area public schools. The education of military-connected kids is a top quality-of-life issue for service members. Because military families move an average of six to nine times throughout a child’s K-12 career — two to three times more frequently than their nonmilitary peers — educational quality has an impact on whether service members opt to make a career in the military.

What makes the consideration of local schools’ performance particularly important is that it is coming from the top. Before he retired as the Army’s top officer, Gen. Ray Odierno, then the Army chief of staff, said that it would be a factor in the placement of Army units around the country. Driving home the point, the Army commissioned a study to examine the quality of schools that serve the children of soldiers.

At a recent meeting in Washington of community leaders from around the country with bases in their regions, Air Force officials stressed that — even without a formal base closing commission in place — the service was moving forward with assessing the value of each of its facilities.

“We need a better understanding of the military value of our installations and to do some more strategic thinking about where to invest our limited resources,” said Richard Hartley, a top Air Force installations official. “We can’t assume we’re going to be successful in getting a BRAC, so we’ve got to start a deeper look at our infrastructure,” he said, using the acronym for the Base Closing and Realignment Commission.

Each military service already has conducted an assessment of its excess infrastructure in light of planned force reductions. The Army has 33 percent more U.S infrastructure than it needs, the Air Force is at 32 percent, while the Navy and Marine Corps have 7 percent extra, according to Pentagon figures provided to Congress.

Many local communities are not waiting for a formal base closing commission to get underway before engaging with military leaders on local school performance. A poll conducted at the Association for Defense Communities’ recent summit of local leaders found that 64.5 percent of respondents were working to improve school performance — in direct response to the military’s focus on the issue. And nearly 55 percent said that community leaders were regularly meeting with military families to discuss education standards and related quality-of-life issues.

As an installation’s value is tallied, those surrounding communities with high K-12 standards (on par with the rigorous standards recently adopted by Department of Defense Education Activity) will fare better. DODEA schools educate only a small percentage of the one million school-age children of military personnel. The vast majority of military-connected children attend the local public schools around bases. However, the College and Career Ready Standards at DODEA schools are based on the equally rigorous Common Core State Standards used in more than 40 states.

Their adoption by the military’s own school system offers a warning for local communities on the fence about Common Core-level standards or those seeking to roll them back.

The nonpartisan Stimson Center puts a finer point on it. It states bluntly in a study that “if host communities do not offer soldiers’ children a consistently high-quality education, they risk the economic challenges that result from losing support of a major employer.”

Communities intent on proving their value to military leaders — and military families — would be wise to heed that advice.

Jim Cowen served 10 years on active duty as an officer in the U.S. Navy, where his assignments included deputy public affairs officer for the chief of naval operations and fire control officer onboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stout. He is executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success in Alexandria, Va.

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