Chief Master Sgt. Stephanie Patterson, an instructor at Maxwell Air Force Base here, found it impossible to ignore the news reports about the surrounding Montgomery, Ala., schools: the abysmal outcomes, the bickering school board members, the accreditation battles, the financial distress—and then, last year, the state takeover.
So next summer, Patterson will move her daughter, now an 8th grader at the federally-run K-8 school on the air base, to Greenville, S.C. She’ll live with her father and attend a high school “with more electives and opportunities,” said Patterson, who eventually plans to join them.
That sort of wrenching parental decision—a choice made by more than half the faculty and students at Air University on Maxwell Air Force Base last year—reflects a recruitment and retention concern for the Air Force and other branches of the military, pinpointed in a speech by Lt. General Anthony Cotton, who oversees this sprawling base.
“The reality is, if my kids aren’t happy, I’m not happy,” he told Montgomery-area education leaders gathered for a conference last year. “There is not a spouse in the United States Air Force that doesn’t pull up [the website Greatcityschools.com]. And when you have schools that don’t even show up on it, it scares the heck out of people and they decide they’d rather separate from their family and have them stay in other locations than come here.”
Across the country, military service members are choosing to live apart from their families for years at a time or, alternatively, quit the military altogether to avoid having to enroll their children in underperforming schools surrounding several military bases.
The trend has only accelerated in recent years, military advocates say, along with the collection of more detailed data about academic outcomes for military-connected students and social media groups where military spouses discuss which school districts to avoid.
Last year, the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force sent a cautionary letter to the nation’s governors noting that school quality is a crucial factor in supporting military personnel at bases around the country, which can be the backbone of local communities—and their economies.
“This is the number one quality of life issue for our airmen—that is the quality of education for their children,” Gen. David L. Goldfein, the chief of staff for the Air Force, told former Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a national seminar in Washington for those who work with military-connected children.
“They tell me, ‘You can deploy me, chief. ... But once you start affecting the education of my children, I’ve got a tough decision to make.’ So this is essential to the United States Air Force, and I think my fellow chiefs would say the same thing.”
The shuttering of a military base can have devastating effects for a local economy. And in the months since last year’s letter to the National Governors Association, politicians and school administrators who work near one of the nation’s 800 military bases have scrambled to improve their lagging test scores and make sure schools are sensitive to required accommodations for military-connected students.
The response shows the military’s unique ability to slice through years of political infighting, red tape, and hand-wringing over how to improve underperforming schools, which often frustrate local parents and advocates.
Despite moving on average six to nine times before graduating high school, the nation’s 1.6 million military-connected students on average academically outperform their civilian peers and, notably, there appears to be very little gap in achievement between white and black students. Many attribute this to the political capital military officials bring to communities on behalf of their students.
Military communities are often more organized than community advocacy groups and can articulate the sorts of academic programming they want for their children. The military can be willing to pour millions of dollars in grants into a district to meet those demands. Last year, for example, Alabama received more than $17 million in grants from the Department of Defense Education Activities.
Military officials also seek to make sure districts provide special transfer accommodations for their students, which in 2017 was codified in the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunities for Military Children.
While there are many high-performing urban, suburban, and rural districts throughout the country that serve military-connected students, military officials also are using newly available data under the Every Student Succeeds Act to point out which communities don’t serve their students well.
The tug-of-war between school officials and military brass in Montgomery this past year has been especially acute.
More than half the service members at Maxwell Air Force Base move to Montgomery without their children because of the region’s academic performance, according to Cotton, the base commander. The base employs more than 12,500 people, making it Montgomery’s largest employer, with a $2.6 billion annual impact on the local economy.
The Montgomery Public Schools, which struggles with concentrated poverty and high teacher turnover, ranks among the state’s worst-performing districts—two years ago the accrediting body AdvancED said in its evaluation that the 29,500-student district failed to meet 19 of the organization’s 31 metrics.
In 2018, the state took partial control from the school board, which for years had been at odds over how to spend a dwindling pot of money, how to improve its schools, and whether to allow for the expansion of charter schools.
Cotton’s speech last year calling out the issue of school quality jolted Alabama’s political leaders and set off an aggressive attempt to deal with the concerns of service members’ children.
In just the last 10 months, the state’s high school athletics association changed its policies for military-connected students looking to join sports teams. Local officials also eased restrictions for parents wanting to enroll their children in the two suburban school districts.
State and local educators say they’re looking for short-term solutions, such as providing more enrollment options for military-connected students, and long-term solutions such as stabilizing Montgomery’s school budget and improving academic achievement.
Cotton also assigned staff members to put together symposia where military officials, politicians, school board members, and state and local school administrators discuss ways they can better serve military-connected students.
At a symposium held earlier this month on the campus of Alabama State University, more than 250 attendees discussed ways to smooth the transition process for military-connected students between states, districts, and schools, military impact aid and other academic programming offered at public schools surrounding military bases.
“They’re important to us, important to our state, economy, they’re important to our future,” Eric Mackey, the state’s schools superintendent, said of military families.
In one session, school administrators at schools near military bases in Arkansas, Missouri, and Rhode Island, discussed the ways they’ve worked to improve the experience for their military-connected students. They include building STEM programs, stabilizing administrative turnover, opening up online courses, and installing purple-themed light bulbs beneath bridges during military appreciation month.
At the end of the forum, Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, a Republican who chairs the state’s military stabilization committee, said that the state was building a website that would be a one-stop shop for military families where they can look for homes, explore profiles of local schools, and start the enrollment process for their children.
“Our goal is to become the most military-friendly state in the country,” Ainsworth declared.
While Cotton said he was impressed with the turnout at the symposium and encouraged by the dialogue, he said there’s more work that needs to be done to improve the local schools.
“We have a long way to go but the needle is moving,” he said.
In this PBS Newshour video, Education Week explores examines the significant challenges of obtaining special education services for children of military families.
A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 2019 edition of Education Week as School Quality a Family Issue for the Military