No Child Left Behind Leaves Military-Base Schools Out
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
A select group of schools in seven states is totally financed by federal funds yet is exempt from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law that has riled public school officials and politicians nationwide.
The 58 schools are run by the Defense Department at military bases in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Unlike the nation's public schools, the military base schools and their nearly 30,000 children are exempt from the 2002 federal education act, which mandates strict new standards for testing and teacher certification and threatens penalties for schools that don't meet new goals.
It's not fair, contends Reginald M. Felton, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association and school board member in Montgomery County, Md. "We feel very strongly that it's a double standard," Felton said. "If you accept federal dollars, you ought to be governed by [No Child Left Behind Act]."
"It is supposed to build accountability for federal investments. Why not this federal investment?" Felton said.
The law was a centerpiece of President Bush's first year in office and is meant to improve public schools by forcing them to raise standards for all students, especially traditionally underperforming minority groups. But Republicans and Democrats from several states have protested its federal intrusion into the classroom. Six states Indiana, Ohio, North Dakota, Minnesota, Utah and Vermont are studying whether the federal dollars they receive are worth the cost of complying with the law.
Overall, the nation's public schools receive about 8 percent of their funds from the federal government.
The DoD schools do not fall under the education law because their money does not come from the Department of Education. "Those schools are controlled by the Department of Defense," said Carlin Hertz, a spokesman for the Department of Education. "[The Department of Education] has no jurisdiction over them and is not responsible for their funding."
Douglas Kelsey, deputy director of the DoD's domestic schools, said the schools try to live up to the spirit of No Child Left Behind. "We don't actively say we don't comply with No Child Left Behind," he said. "We actively comply with the intent of the law."
DoD schools set high standards for students and teachers and have increased the amount and kinds of testing in schools, he said. Still, he concedes there are new federal mandates that his schools are able to avoid.
The military's domestic schools educate a fraction of the 1.4 million children of military personnel. More than 70,000 children attend schools on overseas military bases, and the rest attend schools off the bases.
As a group, the DoD's stateside schools are similar in many ways to an urban or diverse suburban public school system. About half of the military's school children come from low-income families, according to a 2001 study by the National Education Goals Panel. And 57 percent of the children are ethnic minorities, according to a November 2003 enrollment report from the DoD.
However, unlike most public school systems, the base schools rarely include all 12 grades; most students must transfer to the local public school system to complete their education. And most schools are small by national standards. Elementary schools typically have fewer than 350 students and high schools no more than 900, according to government figures.
DoD schools spend more money per pupil than the national average, according to the 2001 report. "For 1998-1999 DoD [Education Activity] reports that the total expenditures per pupil was $8,908. The overseas system has higher expenditures ($9,055) than the domestic system. The funding levels for both systems are higher than the national average of $7,290," the study says.
Student testing is one the main areas in which military base schools escape new rules imposed by the Bush education law.
Public schools must report test scores for each of five separate ethnic groups white, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American as well as the test scores of special education students and students with limited English fluency.
"We spend plenty of time disaggregating data," the DoD's Kelsey said. "We don't publish it, but we don't hide it." The DoD Education Activity does post some system-wide test scores for African-American and Hispanic students on its Web site.
The nation's public schools also must increase the number of students succeeding on state tests, and all students must pass those tests by 2014.
Schools with a high number of low-income students that do not meet annual testing targets must pay for pupils to transfer to higher-performing schools and must provide tutoring and extra services. Schools also may be taken over by their state department of education if they continue to miss testing targets.
The DoD schools have a goal for 75 percent of its students to score above the 50th percentile on standardized reading and math tests, Kelsey said. But the military's schools do not face the same penalties for missing that benchmark, he acknowledged: "We don't face the same consequences. But politically we could."
The DoD schools ultimately answer to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, said Steve Nousen, a lobbyist for the National Education Association. The children of soldiers face unusual challenges that would make it very difficult to apply the new education law to the base schools, Nousen said. For instance, children of soldiers may live in several different states between kindergarten and high school graduation. Each of those states would have different kinds of tests and different standards. Military children also face the hardship of having one or even both parents deployed to a war zone, he said.
Despite those challenges, the DoD eighth-graders ranked second compared to the 50 states on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading tests. The military's fourth-graders ranked fourth among the states on the 2002 NAEP reading exam. And African-American and Hispanic students perform better overall in the military's schools than anywhere in the nation, Nousen said.
DoD schools cannot afford to ignore the law, said Mary Keller, executive director of the advocacy organization Military Child Education Coalition.
Most of the children in the military's schools eventually will have to transfer to the public school system and face new testing and standards, she said, and parents and children have to be better prepared for that transition. Keller's organization is urging the DoD Education Activity to better coordinate with states and local school systems on their testing and standards.