For active-duty military families who have children with disabilities, the challenges can be especially demanding. Frequent moves, and the education interruptions associated with them, can set back any child’s academic progress. For families of special-needs children, a constant quest for satisfactory doctors and consistent care becomes a major focus of adjusting to new communities and schools.
The process-intensive requirements of federal special education laws do offer certain safeguards, but also add layers of complication to even basic education decisions. On top of these challenges, learning to navigate different procedures and processes used by school districts and state systems requires many parents in these situations to become both legal and negotiation experts. Even where the system is working well, it rarely works swiftly.
The nation’s military families need and deserve better alternatives. Fortunately, relief may be on the way in the form of new policies built around giving parents more choices, and more control.
The latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2011 passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee establishes a new pilot program for military children with special education needs. The program would offer scholarships of up to $7,500 per year that families could use for tuition, transportation, or other expenses to attend whatever public or private school they feel could best serve their child, including public schools outside of their school district.
While $7,500 is unlikely to cover the entire cost of such a transfer, states that pass their own scholarship plans to complement the federal program could make up the difference, which would offer major relief to affected families. Florida’s statewide scholarships for special-needs children produced over 90 percent parental satisfaction rates.
Meanwhile, a new law passed in Maryland earlier this month offers another kind of solution: allowing military bases to open and operate their own charter schools. The law was led by lawmakers representing Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County, where leaders expect the first such charter to open. Currently, the military operates one charter school, Belle Chasse Academy in Louisiana. The school was opened in 2002 as the result of combined leadership by the Commander, Marine Forces Reserve and Commander, Naval Forces Reserve.
Senior military leaders have recognized that school quality, and the frequent shortage of high-performing schools on military bases, are major factors for families considering re-enlistment. Either of these two initiatives could present a valuable new education option for military families around the nation. This is especially true in Virginia, which has the nation’s largest population of school-aged children in military families, over 76,000. Nationally, there are nearly 1 million such children, with 75 percent age 11 or younger.
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