Military Families Deserve Choices

Military dependent children move 6-9 times during their K-12 years, according to the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC). Although there is much uncertainty in every move, Military families typically begin the relocation process with two questions: 1) Where will we live? 2) Where will our children attend school?

When transitioning to Virginia, military families learn quickly that unlike most states, these two questions are condensed into one. The address a family selects determines the public school students will attend. Too often, this address also determines the quality of the public school a student may attend and the opportunities a child has for advanced academic programs.

A move to Virginia, home to the highest number of military dependent children in the nation, is a cause for stress for many families with school age children. Military families relocating near some of our largest installations learn quickly that the quality of public schools is at best, uneven.

Fifty-one percent of the schools in Virginia that were denied accreditation for the 2016-2017 school year, are located in Hampton Roads. The Hampton Roads area hosts one of our nation’s highest concentrations of military families and is home to the largest Naval Base in the United States.

Military families have few good options. They may choose base housing and accept the uneven quality of the public schools. They may elect for longer commutes to live in communities with accredited public education options. They may homeschool or invest in private education. They may choose to voluntarily separate from their service member either temporarily or for the length of the orders (geographic bachelorhood).

Or they may elect to leave military service or start that process by indicating that they are less willing to move to certain locations.

“If one denies orders, it’s a career suicide”, according to Brandy Sharpe, a military spouse and parent. “We purchased a house over our housing allowance rate, in a higher performing school district with better opportunities for children, and have Ramen noodles as a staple meal.  These are the facts of our choices. I feel that many do not understand the sacrifices we make.”

Virginia has a choice. The Commonwealth may elect to retain the status quo or improve access to public school choice options for military families.   Legislation now working its way to Governor McAuliffe would create new opportunities for quality public charter schools in areas where one or more schools have failed to be accredited for multiple years.  This would be of immense benefit to children whose parents have been assigned to the Hampton Roads area, as well as Fort Lee.

All children deserve the choice of attending a high quality public school. There are over 6,700 charter schools in the United Stated educating nearly three million students. At least eight are located on military installations and also open for the children of civilians.

Public charter schools would also offer an opportunity for families to have the option of attending a school not determined by their address. For a military family, this has the added benefit of enrolling students in school while in temporary housing and keeping their child in the same school regardless of the school zone they choose for permanent housing. During the already stressful transition process, students would not be forced to move to several different schools during their first year of relocation as their parents work to secure affordable housing or elect to live on base.

Charter schools are highly accountable based on student achievement and in most states, military families have the choice of a charter school.

Requiring military families to enroll their children in schools that fail to meet minimum expectations for accreditation in Virginia has been done long enough.

Charter schools are not a magic bullet. They are a choice. The families of military dependent children and all families deserve at least a choice when their address assigns their children to a school that fails to meet the minimum standards.

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About Jill Gaitens

Jill Gaitens, Ed.D. is a Director with the Military Child Education Coalition and a military spouse.
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