WASHINGTON--Defense Department officials have been known to proclaim that they administer the equivalent of the eighth-largest school district in the United States.
But if the Congressional committees that oversee Pentagon activities have their way, the military’s standing as one of the nation’s chief educators of children would be lessened considerably within the next four years.
In a move that attracted little attention at the time, the Congress directed the Defense Department late last year to begin laying the groundwork for an “orderly transfer” to local school districts of the elementary and high schools it operates on domestic military bases.
If the transfers occur as envisioned in the D.O.D. plan, school districts in 11 states can expect to find more than 36,000 children of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel at their doorsteps as soon as 1990.
Several superintendents of districts that would be affected by the transfers say they are not opposed to the idea in principle; some, in fact, say they would welcome the positive effects that the mixing of local and military children would bring.
They all add, however, that their new students would have to bring with them the federal dollars now being spent on their schooling. But given the federal government’s current preoccupation with the budget deficit, at least some of the superintendents question whether adequate levels of federal funding will arrive along with the new students.
At issue is the future of so-called Section 6 schools, which are spread out among 18 military bases in the continental United States and Puerto Rico. The 270 D.O.D. dependents’ schools abroad, which enroll a total of 151,000 students, would not be affected by the changes being discussed by Congressional and military officials.
The armed forces’ history as an educator of children dates as far back as the 1800’s, with the various branches of the military taking responsibility for the schooling of military dependents under their command. In 1950, the Congress consolidated the several dependents’ education programs into the program now commonly known as impact aid.
The most familiar part of the impact-aid program compensates school districts for property-tax revenues lost due to the presence of massive, nontaxable military installations and the thousands of military personnel who live or work on them. The funds are channeled to school districts through the Education Department.
Section 6, a less-well-known provision of the law, authorized the D.O.D. to construct and operate its own schools or to enter into special contractual arrangements with local school officials in cases where local districts either lacked the financial wherewithal to provide a suitable education for military dependents or were forbidden by state or local laws from expending tax revenues for that purpose.
According to staff members of the House and Senate military-personnel subcommittees, the recent surge of Congressional interest in getting the military out of the domestic education business has several origins.
First and foremost, they say, the Section 6 program was never intended to be permanent. As evidence, they point out that more than 70 Section 6 schools have been transferred to local control since the law was enacted.
But according to one staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, passage of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction measure last year has forced committee members to look for areas where the defense budget might be trimmed. And one of those areas, he added, is the Section 6 program.
A Pentagon official who asked not to be named also suggested that complaints from voters who are irked about inadequate federal funding for local schools may have been an additional motivating factor.
“A lot of Congressmen have had constituents asking them, ‘How come you’re approving construction funds for those D.O.D. schools, but you’re not giving anything to our little school in our backyard?’ ” the official said.
“Constraints on the budget and the general premise that local education is not a federal responsibility are the driving forces” behind the initiative, said Russell Milnes of the Senate Armed Services manpower and personnel subcommittee staff.
According to Mr. Milnes, both the House and Senate military-personnel panels have grown concerned over mounting requests in recent years for additions and repairs to the Section 6 schools. In its fiscal 1987 budget request, the Reagan Administration has asked for $16 million in construction funds and $100 million in operating costs for the program.
Concern about spiraling construction costs was so great in the House, Mr. Milnes noted, that the chamber threatened last year to eliminate the $19-million authorization for school construction that had been included in a fiscal 1986 military-construction bill.
When the bill reached a House-Senate conference committee, the funds for construction were retained, but the Pentagon was directed to begin planning for the transfer of the remaining 18 Section 6 schools to local authorities.
Mr. Milnes also pointed out that the Congress directed the General Accounting Office two years ago to study funding alternatives for the military schools. He said that because the report will not be released for several months, Congressional action mandating the transfers is unlikely this year.
Hector Nevarez, who heads the Defense Department’s policy office on the dependents’ schools, declined several requests to comment on the proposal.
But according to the plan prepared by his office and delivered to the Congress on March 1, the option preferred by the D.O.D. calls for the transfer of complete authority for dependents’ schooling to local officials. It also calls for the ownership of school buildings located on bases to be transferred to school districts--and with it, responsibility for maintenance and new construction.
Other options included the transfer of authority for students’ schooling without transferring the title to federal buildings, and special contractual arrangements in which the military would pay partial tuition or otherwise compensate local districts for the cost of educating military dependents.
The complete-transfer proposal “is the preferred option since it relieves the federal government of all funding responsibilities under Section 6,” the document states. “It is important to the Department of Defense that such transfers take place on amicable terms 80 that military-civilian community relationships remain harmonious.”
The option plan notes that the districts receiving new military students would become eligible for impact-aid payments under the section of the program operated by the Education Department.
But it also points out repeatedly that funding for that program “has been severely reduced in recent years,” from $755 million in fiscal 1980 to $662 million in the current fiscal year. In its fiscal 1987 budget request, the Administration proposed that the amount be reduced to $548 million.
“The lack of sufficient impact aid could degrade the ability of the local school districts to deliver a suitable free public education” to military dependents, the report states. “Quality considerations may create impediments to concluding successful negotiations with state and local school districts for the transfer of Section 6 schools unless there is clear Congressional support to minimize the cost of a transfer to be borne by the local school district and local taxpayer.”
The Pentagon officials who prepared the report are by no means alone in their concern over the future availability of impact aid. In fact, several of the districts that would be affected by the transfers have been taken to court by the federal government in recent years for trying to force military dependents to pay tuition in the wake of impact-aid cuts.
“Impact aid is like a roller coaster; there’s an appropriations battle year after year,” said Everett Waters, superintendent of the Onslow County, N.C., school district, which is located near the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.
“It sounds nice, but school administrators have grown very suspicious of impact aid because it’s a very uncertain thing.”
According to Mr. Waters, Onslow County has experienced significant population growth in recent years and the district’s enrollment now stands at about 16,000.
“We presently have 3,000 students housed in substandard classrooms--in divided auditoriums, stage dressing rooms, you name it,” he said. “We recently tried to pass a $16-million bond issue for new construction and failed. If the plan meant that you would take the 4,900 students now on base and put them right into our school system--well, it would be impossible.”
“We would have to close our schools if no commensurate aid came along with the students,” said David Hardwick of the Highland Falls, N.Y., school district, which would see its enrollment increase from 1,100 to 1,700 if students from the West Point Military Academy are transferred to his district. “We’d have a lawsuit on our hands.”
Mr. Hardwick, who became the district’s superintendent four months ago, said that he had no philosophical objections to the concept of the transfer.
Wouldn’t Be Fair
“From a purely educational point of view, giving our youngsters an opportunity to mix with children who have been all over the world is not a bad thing,” he said. “But you can’t expect local taxpayers who have only 7 percent of their tax base left because of the military base to pick up a federal obligation. That wouldn’t be fair.”
Mr. Hardwick said he did not believe that the proposed transfer “will be a reality for us in the near future.”
“But if this were to reach a level of potential reality, we would have to have negotiations involving West Point, ourselves, and state officials,” he added. “Right now we’re accommodating the high-school-age youngsters from the base and we’re willing to accommodate the needs of the elementary-school youngsters as well. But we’d have to have the financing.”
‘We’re Not Interested’
Apparently, not all of the superintendents whose districts would be affected by the change would be as accommodating.
“I feel it would be in the best interest of the children at Fort Benning and the children in Chattahoochie County if the federal government maintained its own system,” said Ronnie Burgamy, superintendent of the 303-student county school system in Georgia. Its enrollment would balloon to more than 2,500 if all of the students now attending schools on the base were transferred.
“We don’t have anywhere near the tax base to handle 2,000 to 3,000 children,” Mr. Burgamy said, explaining that the installation takes " up 80 percent of the county’s territory.
“Now, if the government gets into the position where it will allot money for the children to transfer, then the Chattahoochie board will shit down and take a look at it,” he said. “But until then, we’re not interested at all.”