Public School Reputation Weighs on Air Force Base in Alabama

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Montgomery, Ala.

The poor reputation of schools in Alabama's capital city is creating friction with the city's Air Force base.

Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of Air University and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base, says the state of schools in Montgomery is putting a strain on his job, with airmen arriving on base alone and faculty members reluctant to accept positions at the base.

More than 56 percent of airmen in last year's Air War College came to Montgomery without families, Cotton tells the Montgomery Advertiser, with schools being the top reason cited for separation.

"The reality is, 'If my kids aren't happy, I'm not happy," Cotton said of airmen. "If I have to try to spend so much time trying to understand how to get them ready and prepared for secondary education, then I'm not doing my mission as far as taking care of you, and making sure that I protect our country.' "

Rachel Scott said she started a side business to raise tuition to send her oldest child to a private high school, but would rather save the money for college. She said her family is looking at buying a house outside Montgomery by summer to seek better schools.

Until now, they've relied on Maxwell's on-base school, but it ends after 8th grade.

"We moved on base primarily for the school because my husband did research before we moved here and found out that the school systems were rated really low," Scott said. "Their ratings are so low, I feel like my kids would fall behind."

In the 2016-2017 school year, 34 percent of Montgomery County seniors were deemed to have graduated without being college or career ready. The district's five regular high schools had a combined average ACT score of 16, failing to meet the minimum score of 21 for enrollment at the University of Alabama. On the state's report card, 66 percent of the Montgomery public schools received grades of D or F.

Montgomery County Superintendent Ann Roy Moore wrote in an email that more than 600 students in the system are identified as military dependents. She said the system understands such students' "unique needs."

"We are meeting with Maxwell representatives and the Military Child Transition Coalition team to identify ways we can show military families we care about their needs, and that we are working daily to improve academic achievement in our school system," Moore wrote.

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The impact is a double-edged, with Montgomery failing to accommodate the men and women that serve this country, and failing to accommodate its biggest economic impact, with the base contributing $1.2 billion annually to the city.

Montgomery, Scott said, is losing money because people are forced to live outside the city.

Opening the base's school to military families living off base, however, is not an option the Air Force has. Cotton declined to comment when asked to discuss potential solutions the Air Force is exploring to assist military members who are struggling because of the state of the school system.

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