“We got orders, and we’re moving this summer.”
As a veteran, I can tell you these can be some of the most challenging words a military member can utter to their family.
Reactions can range from, “Not again. We just got here,” to, “Great news! I hate this place.” Relocating to an unfamiliar place is daunting in itself. Choosing a place to live with schools in mind is even moreso.
We face a lot. The movers come and pack things—some of which we might never see again. Likewise, our kids pack up their lives to probably never see their friends and classmates again. Our children feel like their friendships and social lives may never be the same. On top of that, our kids also must adapt and survive in new classrooms.
In many cases, some spouses remain in their current location, so their children can complete a school year after receiving relocation orders. Some spouses even stay put until their kids finish high school, which can take years. Uncertainty of the quality of education in the next place is enough for some families to feel they have no better option than to brave the hardships that such a distance can bring.
Military families sacrifice every day, especially when it comes to finding the best educational options for their children. This can be the greatest challenge of all.
Access to Educational Choice Programs Matters
The challenge often begins with new neighborhood schools that may have a different curriculum, different sports programs, no advanced placement classes or fewer course options than families’ previous schools. Military kids lose the continuity of a curriculum.
Our children could use much more stability, and many schooling alternatives, including distance learning, charter networks, virtual learning and even home schools could provide that as kids move from place to place.
Those alternatives are not available everywhere—a problem for families that move frequently from state to state. It’s a problem that could be solved, however, with education savings accounts (ESAs)—a flexible type of school choice—provided at the federal level. And why not? These parents are actually federal employees. In this way, military families would have more opportunities to ensure continuity in their children’s education. After all, our kids need that stability in what, to most, would be a disruptive life.
ESAs allow parents to access the public funds already set aside for their children’s education. Those funds—often distributed to families via a restricted-use debit card—can cover private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, educational therapies, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and other approved customized learning services and materials. ESAs could even allow families to use their funds to pay for a combination of public school courses and private services, depending on their children’s needs.
A 2017 Surveying the Military report by EdChoice found young military/veteran parents and especially active-duty military parents are more likely than their counterparts to have already sought schooling options beyond a neighborhood public school for their kids. Not only that, but the vast majority of military-connected families said they support programs like ESAs and for good reasons. Mostly, they want access to better academic environments, more flexibility as parents and more individual attention for their kids.
As veterans, my wife and I feel the same way.
Access to School Quality Information Matters
While serving, my wife and I relocated our kids to five different state school districts in a 10-year period. I can say that finding that “good neighborhood with good schools” in which to rent or buy a home is a formidable task.
I remember arriving in a new location. I asked a friend who was already stationed there, “Is X school a good school?” She said it was. Later on, my son told me, “Dad, I was sure glad to see you pick me up every day after school.” I came to find that his school was a dismal failure, and my son actually feared for his safety every day! What an eye opener that was. (But, hey, he got straight As.)
How does a military family get current, valid, reliable data on a local school system?
The military base or post does not provide any information on the performance of local schools. The real estate industry provides some, although it’s dated and inaccurate. Most military families get their information from friends and by word of mouth. In my experience, that was not a very good source to determine my child’s future.
Even though a military child’s new school may be substandard or ill-suited to their needs, they become comfortable or begin making friends, and parents find it difficult to put them through more trauma by moving again so they can attend a better public school. That’s the real challenge: finding a “better school” or other educational options.
This information vacuum needs to be filled to help military families find the best fit for their children’s educational needs.
As the EdChoice survey showed, once active-duty military servicemembers, veterans and their spouses were informed about how ESAs work, their support for such programs jumped from 57 percent to 75 percent. And if these same families knew more about the outcomes their public schools get for the $11,000+ per child they spend on average each year, they would demand more choices for their kids.
We need to demand that states provide parents more information on every school. This would consist of suspension/expulsion numbers (school safety), college acceptance rates and even parent satisfaction surveys. States should also require schools to post their standardized test scores. The Alaska Policy Forum has provided this information with an interactive map displaying the performance of every public school in the state. Parents can see at a glance how all these public schools are performing. Armed with this information, military parents can choose a better school for their kids.
Giving Back to Military Families Matters
Every military parent wants to hear their children say these words: “I love my school.” “My teacher is the best.” “I met the nicest kids at school.”
You see, veterans and active-duty military members always look out for their kids. For most, a quality school is the primary criterion. In fact, more than one-third said dissatisfaction with their children’s education was a significant factor in their decision to remain or leave the military service.
The ones who stay sacrifice to locate to a neighborhood where that ZIP Code-assigned school ranks high. They sacrifice to access alternatives. Data show they are more likely than non-military parents to go so far as getting a second job or taking out a loan just to ensure their kids get a chance at a quality education.
After a life full of sacrifices, couldn’t our education system do more? I think we all owe military families a debt not just on Veterans Day, but all days. Let’s help them meet the educational challenges unique to their families. Let’s say “thank you for your service” by giving them access to the educational choice options that they want and that will help their children reach for the stars.