A new report linking the quality of education offered at local schools and the economic value provided to communities from U.S. Army bases could spell trouble for some states. The Stimson Report analyzed the connection between K-12 education standards and a military base’s economic contributions in advance of an official report from the Army that conducted a comprehensive review of how well communities meet the Army’s education standards. This review was promised to military families by Gen. Ray Odierno, and it could, as the Stimson Report notes, “ripple across the U.S. economy.”
To understand why the Army’s review could be so significant, it is important to look at the military from a family perspective. During the more than 30 years I spent on active duty in the Army, my family moved a number of times, and my three daughters each attended three different high schools, in addition to a number of different elementary and middle schools. While each move represented an advancement for my career, it also represented an upheaval for my family, and each time, my wife and I wondered how our girls would compare academically with their new peers. This is a common anxiety among military families, and the Stimson Report does a great job of laying out the moves and family milestones in the life of a soldier.
On average, soldiers will receive orders that require relocation once every two to three years; the further a soldier’s career progresses, the more frequent the moves, and it is not unusual for higher ranking enlisted and officers to move every 18 to 24 months. According to the Stimson Report, more than 240,000 active-duty Army servicemembers have at least child, and all of those children are educated either on base at a school run by the Department of Defense or off base, most likely at an area public school. The risk of military children being enrolled in underperforming schools or schools that have low academic standards has always been a gamble their parents have had to accept. More than 40 states and the Department of Defense Education Activity adopting the Common Core as early as 2010, though, significantly reduced that risk and for the first time, hundreds of thousands of military families could be assured that their children would be attending new schools on-track academically with their new classmates.
So, too, could the Army have assurances that young soldiers, many of whom join right out of high school, would be better prepared for everything the Army would teach them. Training does not just take place in the field; soldiers spend a lot of time in the classroom, and the fact that 30 percent of high school graduates cannot pass the basic military entrance exam is a sobering reality check on the quality of our schools. The vast majority of enlisted men and women join the Army having earned at least a high school diploma; many will continue their schooling in the service, and will leave the Army with degrees in computer, engineering and other technical fields. At the same time the Army is putting effort into advancing the education of its soldiers, so, too, must it be concerned with the education of soldiers’ children.
And the economic ripple the Stimson Report refers to could be a decision to reallocate resources from one base in an area where schools consistently underperform and do not hold students to high academic expectations to another area that does. Families posted at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., are watching the political fight over Common Core devolve into classroom chaos. The Army, which gets it share of criticism for penny-pinching — not always an unfair criticism, too — is looking at the fact that the base contributes to more than 50 percent of the local economy around the base, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Fort Polk, La., has the same enormous economic benefit on its area, and state leaders there have been fighting the political aspirations of their governor in his attempt to demonize the higher academic standards of the Common Core — despite the improvements students are showing around the country under the program.
So many communities in the United States are intimately tied to the fortunes of the local base. So many communities take it for granted that the base will always be there, but the Base Realignment and Closure actions a few years ago proved that wrong. The Army could very well show its concern for its families by lessening its commitment to bases located near underperforming schools and in states that refuse to adopt higher academic standards. Communities ignore the importance and inextricable link between K-12 standards and economic dependency to their peril.
Retired Maj. Gen. James “Spider” Marks was the commanding general of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center. He is a managing director with the consulting firm Opportunities Development Group and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.