Defense officials have convened a working group to focus on issues related to military children's education in schools outside the gates, an Army official said.
"They're looking across all the military services, with respect to what the larger department might be able to do to address some of the concerns we have with public schools," said Carla Coulson, director of installation services for the Army's office of the assistant chief of staff for installation management.
"We look forward to taking part."
Coulson was on a panel that discussed the ties between the economic well-being and education standards of communities that host military installations.
A report released Thursday by the Stimson Center found that schools offering a lower quality of education could end up costing their communities if the military places a high priority on that factor in making base closure decisions.
"If host communities do not offer soldiers' children a consistently high-quality education, they risk the economic challenges that result from losing support of a major employer," concluded the report, "The Army Goes to School: The Connection between K-12 Education Standards and the Military-Base Economy."
The study was limited to Army communities, but the author of the study, Matthew Leatherman, acknowledged this is an area of interest to the other military branches as well.
Lt. Gen. David Halverson, commander of Army Installation Management Command and assistant chief of staff for installation management, did not commit to whether the Army could possibly consider education standards in any future BRAC process, if there is one.
"We use a lot of factors when we look at [BRAC]," he said. "This is an awareness aspect. We do have to keep the drumbeat going. It's an issue our families have."
Halverson said it's important for the Army to participate in the discussion because "we want to be part of that voice to ensure that you know from the soldier's perspective, it's important."
Coulson said that in the wake of a study on the quality of public schools near Army posts — ordered by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno — installation leaders have opened discussions with local school districts about those assessments of school performance.
Odierno launched that process in October 2013 when he told a family forum that elected leaders often ask him what they can do for him. If they want to keep their bases in their communities, he said, "they better start paying attention to the schools that are outside and inside our installations. Because as we evaluate and as we make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria."
Discussions with local school districts have been going on in communities with schools that had at least 200 military children, Coulson said. "We've learned a lot about each other," she said. "We've been able to talk with each other in a more robust fashion than we have in the past.
"The chief of staff did accomplish something by [opening up] this dialogue," she said.
Coulson added that Tom Brady, director of the Department of Defense Education Activity, works closely with local school districts to ensure there is an open dialogue.
The quality of public schools near some military bases has been an issue for military families, and the subject of a number of studies, for decades. The Military Child Education Coalition was formed to tackle many related issues, and all states have signed on to the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which aims to make transitions easier for military children, such as simplifying the transfer of course credits.
The Defense Department has taken steps such as providing grants for construction or renovation of some public schools that serve heavy populations of military children, and can provide assistance on transitions, deployments and other issues of military children, when districts request it.
Amy Zink, whose husband recently retired from the Army, acknowledged that it's not a new problem, but said she's encouraged to see that states are implementing education standards.
"And I'm seeing continued outreach. It would help if the military could make districts aware of the resources available to military families," said Zink, who participated on the panel.
Her children attended seven schools, with three sets of standards. When they moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, two years ago, when her husband was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, local school officials weren't aware of the interstate compact. They researched it, and she was able to use it to get some testing for her daughter's eligibility for a program.
Leatherman said he hopes the analysis will serve to advance the discussion about the quality of schools near military bases, and said he hopes the report will serve to amplify and broadcast the message.
He used public data from the Army study to look at the performance of schools near Army posts. The report did not make specific connections between the quality of the schools in a community and the level of economic impact the Army has on that community, Leatherman said, because the study is not public and they were unable to release that data.
According to the report, 19 Army posts contribute at least 15 percent of the total income of their host counties. In six counties, the Army generated 50 percent or more of every dollar earned. Another four posts generated at least one-third of their counties' income.
Leatherman said there was a "very wide" variation in the quality of schools of those 19 posts. "There was no clustering on one end or the other" of poor-quality schools or excellent schools, he said.
"I hope these communities see this as a wake-up call when it comes to K-12 education standards within their state," said Patty Barron, director of family readiness for the Association of the U.S. Army. "Increasing performance levels of students not only benefits military children, it benefits all children. It shouldn't take the threat of losing a military installation to raise academic standards."