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Poor-quality schools could cost military communities

June 25, 2015 (Photo Credit: FRANK PERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Schools that offer a lower quality of education could end up costing their communities if the military places a high priority on that factor in its base closure decisions, says a new report from the global security think tank Stimson Center.

"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," scheduled to be released Thursday.

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.

Some host states have adopted education standards and have Army-connected school districts that perform well, according to the Stimson report. "Other communities with equal economic dependency on the Army are challenged by less rigorous academic standards at the state level or inadequate performance at the school and district levels."

The study is limited to Army communities, although its author acknowledges the issue is an area of interest to the other service branches as well.

The research was spurred by comments from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in October 2013 during the annual meeting of the Association of the U.S. Army.

Noting that governors and members of Congress ask him all the time what they can do for him, he said that if they want to keep their military bases 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."

Communities that host Army posts should take heed of Odierno's powerful message, the report states.

"I hope communities will have a greater awareness of what the chief of staff of the Army raised, and will factor education into their examination of issues. This factor, which can have a substantial economic impact, is on the agenda" when the Army makes these decisions, said report author Matthew Leatherman, a budget analyst and fellow with Stimson's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program.

Both the Army and local communities have the responsibility to assess those interconnected issues of education standards and economic dependency, the report states.

In 2013, Odierno also launched an evaluation of local schools to recognize those communities that meet the Army's baseline education standards and identify those that don't. Army officials have said the report, conducted by WestEd, is not for public release, but researchers at Stimson Center had access to it and used it to conduct their analysis.

Some of the posts also have Department of Defense Education Activity schools within their gates for dependent children. The WestEd study and Stimson report focus on schools outside the gate attended by many Army children.

The Stimson report makes generalizations in comparing the economic impact with data on the performance of the schools. It noted that the schools in "a handful" of the most economically dependent communities, including host counties for Fort Stewart, Georgia [Liberty County], and Fort Drum, New York [Jefferson County], "generally perform within the norm for their states, and both states have adopted high academic standards."

Other counties with high levels of economic dependency have some work to do, the report says. Schools in Bell County, Texas, which derives 38 percent of its income from Fort Hood, and in Pulaski County, Missouri, which derives 59 percent of its income from Fort Leonard Wood, tend to fall within their statewide norms, but there are questions about statewide education standards.

And the Army's largest post — Fort Bragg — may be a unique case, based on the performance of the schools in surrounding Cumberland County, North Carolina, which derives 43 percent of its income from that installation.

WestEd found that five of the eight high schools around Fort Bragg fell into North Carolina's bottom performance quartile, and six have subpar graduation rates. North Carolina standards also are in question.

However, 16 of the county's 18 elementary schools and each of the five middle schools perform within the broadly normal range for North Carolina.

The WestEd study's findings are limited by an inability to make comparisons among states. WestEd also identified only the best performing and worst performing schools, according to the Stimson report.

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