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Congress Wants Data on Military-Connected Students

From left: Meghan Meza, Meghan Jones, and Summer Gilliard, return to the school after lowering the flags at Quantico Middle/High School on March 13, 2015 in Quantico, VA.  (Amanda Voisard for The Hechinger Report)

In the flurry of media coverage of the political fight to replace No Child Left Behind, one issue hasn’t gotten much attention: a proposal to require states and districts to track the academic progress of children from military-connected families.

Amendments to create a “military dependent student identifier” survived both the House and Senate versions of bills to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Essentially, Congress would be creating a new subgroup of students requiring mandatory reporting, adding it to a roster that already includes race and ethnicity, special education, limited English proficiency, and low-income status.

The ESEA is the primary means by which Congress funds public schools. No Child Left Behind is the most current iteration of the ESEA, and it is more than eight years overdue for a rewrite. This week the Senate passed its rewrite (the Every Child Achieves Act), and the House passed its version earlier this year. The two chambers will now reconcile their versions into a bill they hope the president will sign.

One reason the military child issue might be flying under the radar is that it hasn’t been mired in controversy. (The same can’t be said for fight over how much power the federal government should wield over local schools.) In fact, there is strong bipartisan support both in Congress and among advocacy groups that have argued that tracking kids from military families is long overdue.

The Data Gap

Why does this matter? Consider the numbers: There are nearly 1.2 million children with at least one parent who is active duty or reserve military. The vast majority of these students are being educated in the nation’s public schools (There are also about 78,000 students living on U.S. military installations around the globe and are attending campuses operated by the Department of Defense Education Activity network). While the school districts serving the largest populations of these students receive additional federal funding, little is known about how those dollars are spent – or if the intended students actually benefit from the additional support.

Indeed, in a 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office noted, “There are no national public data on military dependent students’ academic progress, attendance, or long-term outcomes, such as college attendance or workplace readiness.”

Without such metrics, “educators, base commanders, and community leaders are not able to provide military dependent students with appropriate resources because they do not have information on their specific educational needs or the effectiveness of the schools and programs serving them,” the GAO concluded.

Keeping closer tabs on federal Impact Aid to military connected students might also help districts determine how well they are serving these students. One example: A district might report that it used its Impact Aid to support school guidance counselors. However, there would be no data on whether children with parents or guardians serving in the military actually participated in those services.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington), co-sponsor of the Every Child Achieves Act, explained the amendment to the Military Times as “a first step to ensure we have the information we need to make sure our education laws are working to help these children succeed in school.” One key concern is transiency: Indeed, children in military families change schools an average of eight times during their academic careers. Those frequent relocations, coupled with the stresses of having parents deployed, can have a devastating impact on their academic progress.

Murray, who proposed the amendment, also sought to quell fears about the privacy of the  students’ information, and who might have access to it. 

“I want to be clear,” Murray told the Military Times earlier this month. “The data collected would only be used to give us the information we need to help schools and their students succeed.”

Whose kids count?

Seventeen states have already passed legislation similar to what the ESEA amendment would require. But their definitions of what constitutes a child connected to the military vary widely. Consistency in the definition is necessary for the data to be valid and useful, concluded the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which endorsed the creation of a military student data identifier in its January 2015 report to Congress.

As the commission’s report noted, a half-dozen states include the status of both parents and legal guardians when determining whether a child is connected to the military. But in two states – Indiana and Maine – the law specifically refers only to parents. And in Florida, the law refers simply to “the child of a military family” and also requires reporting on preschoolers.

(The proposed federal definition would be “students with parents who serve in the uniformed services, including the National Guard and Reserves”.)

John “Jack” Ballantyne, senior vice president of the Military Child Education Coalition, told me that if the amendment becomes a federal mandate, compliance shouldn’t be overly complicated or expensive. The coalition, a national nonprofit group that has lobbied Congress in support of the amendment, estimated 97 percent of school districts already have sufficient data collection systems in place.

That being said, it will still take effort for states to come into compliance, said Paige Kowalski, vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. But that’s time and money that’s well spent, addded Kowalski, who grew up in a military family.

“We want people to know what questions we need to ask,” Kowalski told me. “The data collection and technical solutions need to follow the questions of how these resources are best allocated, so that these families and schools are supported and these kids are successful.”

You can read more about these issues in a piece I wrote for The Hechinger Report, focusing on students at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia.



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