Educational Opportunity for Military Children

For half a decade now, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as No Child Left Behind. The principal stumbling block has been how to rewrite the law's accountability requirements for student achievement. That's certainly a debate worth having. But the continuing disagreement has had an unfortunate consequence. It has foreclosed an opportunity to help one the most neglected populations in public education: military students.

The vast majority of the 1.2 million school-aged military children attend public schools. While there are schools that are models of how to support military students, most are still not equipped to help these students manage the stresses of military life: adjusting to new schools year after year because of their parents' changing deployment orders; dealing with a revolving door of friendships; handling the possibility of a parent's death. Worse, many school districts, including some near military bases, have no idea if there are military students in their classrooms, let alone how many. How can schools support military students if they don't know who they are?

Such neglect may affect many military students' performance in public school classrooms. A Rand study released last year focused on military students' achievements in North Carolina and Washington state, both home to big military bases. It found that the reading and math scores of these students were significantly lower than those of their civilian peers, and that the achievement gap was greater the younger the student was.

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is the best way to nationally address the academic struggles of military students. Remarkably, their needs have not been included in previous large-scale education reform efforts, such as Race to the Top. This oversight must end. The good news is that the specifics of how to support these students are already available. They are outlined in the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which has widespread support.

The compact spotlights the obstacles military students face in school and offers remedies. For example, these students frequently lose credits when they transfer to schools in other states, forcing them to retake courses. The compact encourages schools to waive course requirements if students have already completed similar coursework in another state.

Organizations such as the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Impacted Schools Association and the National Military Family Association have worked tirelessly to get states to adopt the compact, and most have agreed that following its recommendations is the right thing to do for military families. But even in those states, implementation and follow through can vary widely at the school-district level.

None of this is to suggest that military students are strictly on their own in the nation's schools. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have spotlighted the many public schools that have gone the extra mile to support military students, and the Department of Defense Educational Activity continues to build partnerships with public schools serving military families. California has developed semi-annual anonymous surveys for districts to learn how many students from military families are in their classrooms. Maryland's Harford County schools have taken the additional step of tracking military students' academic achievement. And in tracking students with parents on active duty or who are deployed overseas, South Carolina schools know when to intervene to offer extra support, whether during times of stress over a parent's fate on the battlefield or on a student's first day at a new school. Military students, on average, will attend up to nine schools before graduating from high school.

Members of Congress love to tout their support for our nation's military families. But so far their rhetoric is largely empty -- especially at a time when our country has been at war for over a decade, and Congress' support for our service members does not extend to their families back home. With tens of thousands of warriors returning home, states, local communities and hundreds of organizations are mobilizing to help them and their children readjust. Congress could provide invaluable support if it reauthorized the education bill and included in it the compact's recommendations for military children, along with incentives and penalties to ensure its implementation.

The question is, when will Congress stop ignoring the education of the children of military families who have sacrificed so much since the war on terror began?