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ARLINGTON, Va. — Education and quality of life could suffer for servicemembers’ children attending one of 58 stateside schools now run by the U.S. militarythat the Pentagon is studying whether to relinquish control.

“We’re very, very concerned about individual civilian school districts’ ability to absorb these kids and give them a quality education,” said Joyce Raezer, director of government relations for the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. “A lot of the quality-of-life issues revolve around a school system that understands who you are, understands deployment issues, and is a system that works for the same people who are deploying your parents.”

Not all stateside installations have their own schools, and the reason the Department of Defense Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary Schools, or DDESS, system was created after World War II no longer exists, said Joseph Tafoya, director of Department of Defense Education Activity.

The Pentagon started the system because the military desegregated, but many schools in the South had not. And southern school districts typically are poorer, and historically, students scored lower on standardized tests. “But those reasons no longer exist,” Tafoya said during a recent interview. “No longer are they a factor.”

Segregation no longer exists, but inferior school systems in the South do, and the association fears already-struggling school jurisdictions would fall short of providing educational standards now enjoyed by DDESS students, not to mention the consistent curriculum, Raezer said.

“Segregation isn’t a problem any more, or shouldn’t be. But it’s a big fear that the school won’t be able to absorb the students. Where are they going to get the extra funding? How are they going to upgrade schools, buy buses, hire teachers? Where are they going to get the resources?”

Similar themes were raised by Oliver Dalton, superintendent of Chattahoochee County schools outside of Fort Benning, Ga., home of the 3rd Infantry Division.

As the superintendent of the county’s schools — all three of them — his school district would grow from 1,100 students to more than 5,000. He raised the quality-of-life issue, citing as examples a loss of community garnered from being on base and an increase of school bus commute times from an average five to 10 minutes to 35 to 45 minutes.

“As a parent and ex-military, … I think it would be unfair to close the system,” Dalton said. “It’s a good recruiting tool. Parents expect a quality education from their local base, a quality of life in the armed services, and compared to some of the rural counties in Georgia, it’s much better for children at the [base] schools. It just wouldn’t be fair to those children.”

No decision has been made on whether to terminate the DDESS system and turn over those students to local school jurisdictions, officials said, adding they would be remiss if they didn’t explore the feasibility.

Within DDESS, there are 65 schools on 17 military installations, including Puerto Rico and Cuba, which educate 26,975 students and employ about 2,500 teachers. Up for consideration is whether to close or transfer control of the 58 schools on 14 military installations in Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

In March 2002, Congress directed DODEA, which runs the military’s schools both overseas and in the United States, to commission two studies on whether DDESS is financially viable and in the best interest of the military, families and students.

Two unreleased studies sit before Pentagon leaders. In one, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looked at the status of the facilities. The second, by the Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts, looked at an array of issues from infrastructure, curricula, the quality of life, standards of learning, state and federal funding and all the educational programs, including special education.

Pentagon officials won’t release the reports until they have been scrutinized and defense and congressional officials have been briefed, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Richard. “The [University of Massachusetts] study is currently under review in the Office [of the] Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Military Community and Family Policy.”

Tafoya said that with the upcoming presidential and Congressional elections, changes likely wouldn’t be made until after the new year, he said.


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