The Department of Defense is deciding how to spend $250 million to upgrade a set of public schools that are in disrepair or overcrowded.
The catch is that these schools — though part of local school districts — are on stateside bases and 94 percent of their students are military children.
There are 160 public schools on stateside bases, evidence of a bygone era when the only way to send military children to racially integrated schools was to build them on base.
All of these public schools on base were at one time under control of the Department of Education. Twenty are still “owned” by DOE even though all are run now by local school districts, explained Robert Gordon, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy.
The feeling on Capitol Hill is that military families suffer enough stress with multiple war deployments of parents. They shouldn’t have to watch public-run schools on base deteriorate because local school budgets have been hit by a recession and slow economic recovery.
So as part of the fiscal 2011 defense appropriations bill, Congress took the unprecedented step of adding $250 million to be used to repair and renovate schools previously thought to be the responsibility of local school systems and local taxpayers.
Working with local education agencies, the $250 million will be aimed at 30 or fewer schools whose facilities are rated by DOD engineering teams as “failing” due to run down conditions or inadequate capacity, or as “poor” both in physical condition and space, Gordon said.
More than half of schools found to be in most need of renovation are on rural Army bases including Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Bliss, Texas, Fort Polk, La., and Fort Riley, Kan. Other public schools in need are on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Naval Support Activity, Norfolk, Va., Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and Wheeler/Schofield Army Airfield, Hawaii.
An assessment that places base schools into lower tiers of disrepair is concerning but not surprising, said Candace Wheeler, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. A lot of public schools on base are just very old, she said.
“Although many need upgrading or renovating, that doesn’t speak to the quality of education going on inside,” Wheeler added. “Many of them are doing an excellent job of educating our military children.”
Gordon said quality of education in these schools varies by district, as is true across the country. A point he preferred to emphasize is that every school on a military base is safe to attend, even those rated as failing.
“We don’t put our kids in unsafe schools,” Gordon said.
The House Appropriations Committee first sounded an alarm on physically deteriorating schools for military children in 2008, focusing then on 195 schools operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity. DODEA schools educate 86,000 military children in 12 foreign countries, seven states and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam.
DOD teams rating the physical conditions at DODEA schools gave a “failing” grade to 40 percent and an “under-maintained” rating to another 39 percent. Those statistics were shared with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a July letter from a dozen U.S. senators who urged him to work with Congress to help give military children the schools they deserve.
Defense officials say they are in the second year of a six-year plan to repair or replace 134 DODEA schools in poor or failing physical condition. The fiscal 2012 budget request seeks $550 million to “recapitalize” 15 schools, a figure that hints at how far $250 million might go toward reviving 30 or so public schools on base.
Those are schools with “urgent” needs, Gordon said.
“We do take this seriously,” Gordon said about conditions at these schools. “But we feel our kids are getting [a good] education.”
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