A new report released last week by a Washington think tank examines the connection between high education standards and economic viability of the geographic areas surrounding military bases. The report from the Henry L. Stimson Center finds that the Army must use education standards as a key criteria in decisions to close or realign military bases.
The report, written by Matthew Leatherman, a non-resident fellow with Stimson’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program, comes partly in response to comments made by General Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff of the Army, who said in 2013, “[If politicians] want to keep the military in their communities, 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.”
Major General Spider Marks, USA, Ret. spoke with InsideSources, noting, “The [Base Realignment and Closure] Commission absolutely should consider and has considered” access to high-quality schools in closures and realignments. He says that access to education and quality of education probably account for 25 percent or more of consideration by the Commission for what bases should remain open.
The new report notes that there are more than 300,000 school-age children who are affected by varying education standards. Low education standards in many of the areas that are host to bases may be a retention issue for the Army in the years ahead. Quality of life for a soldier’s family is top of mind in weighing whether to stay in the military, and families at all levels of the military feel the impact of different education standards between communities.
Marks relates this issue to his own family’s experience. His children did very well in school, but he says “they were victim to the variability of standards.” He points to the example of his daughter moving from Texas to Germany during her senior year. While she was an honor student in Texas, her GPA dropped once in Germany because the Department of Defense school system had different standards than those in Texas.
Base closures could have far-reaching effects on the local economies near bases. According to the report: In 2013, the military generated one-half or more of every dollar earned in six host counties: Fort Benning in Chattahoochee County, Georgia (90 percent); Fort Riley in Geary County, Kansas (67 percent); Fort Campbell in Christian County, Kentucky (63 percent); Fort Stewart in Liberty County, Georgia (61 percent); Fort Leonard Wood in Pulaski County, Missouri (59 percent); and Fort Polk in Vernon Parish, Louisiana (54 percent). Another four bases produce more than one-third of their county’s income: Fort Bragg in Cumberland County, North Carolina (43 percent); Fort Drum in Jefferson County, New York (41 percent); Fort Hood in Bell County, Texas (38 percent); and Fort Lee in Prince George County, Virginia (36 percent).
Losing the bases could devastate communities, but the report notes that many communities with low education standards have time to adopt higher standards. It points to Common Core math and English standards, which were written by the states and have also been adopted by the Defense Department for schools on military bases. But while the Common Core standards were adopted by most states nationwide, some states that host military bases have acted to roll back the standards because of political hostility.
Marks says he understands the often-voiced conservative criticism of Common Core that education needs to be controlled by the states. But Common Core, he explains, is overarching standards agreed upon by the states, and a curriculum would still be determined by each state. Marks says the key to Common Core is that it is “a floor, not a ceiling.” States can set higher standards, but at least by agreeing on a number of basic English and math concepts that should be taught, he explains, it will help avoid punishing children that have changed schools frequently.
Leatherman, the report’s author, stressed in an interview with InsideSources that he views time as a key variable. If the Army continues to stress education standards as a possible criteria in base closure and realignment, host communities have time to implement higher standards before any decisions will be made. He says, “Host communities that look at our report and feel like they’re doing well will need to maintain that performance over a period of several years. Host communities that look at our report and feel like they will need to adjust have the opportunity to do that because there’s still several years left.”