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On-base families should be able to choose public school, lawmakers say

May. 8, 2012 - 01:33PM   |   Last Updated: May. 8, 2012 - 01:33PM  |  
Children of airmen at Seymour Johnson AFB board a school bus to Meadow Lane Elementary School in Goldsboro, N.C., for their first day of school.
Children of airmen at Seymour Johnson AFB board a school bus to Meadow Lane Elementary School in Goldsboro, N.C., for their first day of school. (Air Force)
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Military parents living on base should be able to select which local public school their child attends, a House panel suggests.

The House Armed Services Committee's military personnel panel wants defense officials to identify school districts with large on-base populations of military children that don't allow parents to choose their kids' schools.

DoD would be tasked with drafting an action plan aimed at providing "better educational equity, opportunity and flexibility for military families" who live on installations.

Lawmakers proposed adding the requirement to report language that accompanies the House version of the 2013 defense authorization bill, the first step in a long legislative process that likely will extend through most of the year.

A "significant percentage" of on-base military families live in districts that don't allow parents to choose a public school, lawmakers said. "Rather, these families are assigned schools by geographic default, even when other school district boundaries are near the base or multiple school boundaries overlap onto the base."

About 57 percent of school districts that educate military children are in states that have open enrollment policies among schools within a specific district, and 54 percent are in states that have open enrollment policies for schools in different districts, according to a 2011 Defense Department report. These apply to all families, not just military.

Common reasons that families request a change in schools are concerns about overall education quality or special academic needs, said one military school liaison who works with commands, schools and parents.

For other families, it may come down to the availability of bus transportation or after-school child care, said the liaison, who asked not to be identified.

School districts generally are willing to work with military families, she said. But if a special requirement is carved out for military kids who live on base, she said, there may be pushback from districts that don't want to create the appearance of giving special treatment to one group.

Military families who live off installations often choose their neighborhoods because of schools, although they may not always be able to afford to live in the location with the best schools.

Carving out an exception for on-base military families could create a situation of "haves" and "have-nots," even among military families, said Mary Keller, who heads the Military Child Education Coalition.

MCEC believes in parent choice for everyone, as much as possible and practical, Keller said, but added: "If military students become a separate group, exempt from state and local zones, what are the consequences? Does this add to their turbulence?"

Lawmakers said they want defense officials to identify the most serious problem areas and recommend options for change.

Keller noted that under the No Child Left Behind law, parents of children in any low-performing schools already have the right to go to another school, unless the desired school has other enrollment requirements or is overcrowded.

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