Local Schools: A Weapon to Blunt the Potential for Future Troop Cuts
Communities surrounding almost every U.S. Army base were rocked this past July when the Pentagon announced it was cutting 40,000 soldiers, along with 17,000 civilian workers, due to budget cuts. But those cuts would pale in comparison to a new base closing round – which could receive new life after the 2016 elections.
Given the economic lifeblood that Army bases provide local host communities, the stakes are high. A report from the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC think tank, identified 19 Army facilities responsible for at least 15 percent of their host counties' economies.
These bases range from Ft. Bliss in Texas (16 cents of every dollar earned in the host county comes from the base) to Ft. Benning in Georgia (a whopping 90 cents).
To get a better sense of how these cuts could impact one of these communities, consider these two examples: Ft. Carson, the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based home of the 4th Infantry Division, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), the lone major Army installation on the West Coast, located outside of Tacoma, Washington.
The two bases contribute about 20 cents of every dollar earned in their host county, making them important, but not dominant economic players in these mid-sized cities. However, the Army originally targeted both facilities for significant cuts last year. It projected Ft. Carson would lose up to 16,000 soldiers while JBLM would lose nearly 11,000.
The economic pain would have been huge. According to projections done by the Army, both host counties and the surrounding regions would have lost about $1 billion in income. With this loss, state and local governments would lose millions in tax revenue.
Fortunately for these two communities, the two bases avoided significant cuts when the final announcement was made. This time.
Given these stakes, it is imperative that base communities in the crosshairs, such as Tacoma and Colorado Springs, know the criteria the Army will use should the next occupant of the White House convince Congress of the merits of shuttering bases. This way, they can take steps to limit their exposure.
One such step is to improve the performance of local schools.
Back in 2013, then-Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno said the service would be including new, nontraditional benchmarks to force-cutting plans. In a speech to military families, Odierno stated that if politicians “want to keep the military in the[ir] communities, they better start paying attention to the schools that are outside and inside our installations. Because as we evaluate and we make decisions on future force structure, that will be one of the criteria.”
The quality of schools is an important issue to the Army for multiple reasons. The first is recruitment. The Army wants to ensure that new recruits have the skills necessary to be a modern soldier. Unfortunately, according to The Education Trust, a significant percentage (23 percent) of Army recruits cannot pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery upon enlistment.
The second is retention. Similar to other families, military families want to ensure their children go to good schools. Army retention surveys have shown that one reason experienced soldiers retire is to avoid being transferred to base communities known to have “bad” schools. Seeing the quality of these schools improve would likely help keep trained soldiers enlisted.
To help catalog which schools were good and which were not, Odierno commissioned WestEd, an education research organization, to conduct a survey of schools near Army bases. The study compared 393 schools covering grades kindergarten through 12 across 22 states that serve at least 200 children of Army families. This included 29 schools around Ft. Carson and 15 schools near JBLM.
The report looked at academic performance, college/career readiness and other criteria. WestEd completed the report 2014, but it has not been publicly released.
The WestEd report’s purpose was to give the Army important information about the quality of these schools. It found, for example, that the schools around Ft. Carson ranked among the best in the state of Colorado while those around JBLM were more of a mixed bag. Some schools ranked highly while others required significant and immediate attention.
It also found that, in the past, states have administered different tests and collected different indicators. As a result, there was no way to compare schools around Ft. Carson and JBLM with their counterparts in Texas, North Carolina or any other state.
So what can local community leaders do?
For starters, they should demand the information from the WestEd study be released publicly and then use it to focus their communities' attention on the necessity of good schools for all students.
But whether the community has an Army base or a facility from another branch of the armed forces, local leaders also should support high, consistent standards, such as Common Core. Not only does Common Core set a higher bar to challenge students, but it allows politicians to know where their schools stand compared to those near other bases. They can use the findings to make the improvements necessary to protect their communities from potential new cuts.
As the military gets leaner, the Pentagon will make tough decisions about cutting forces using non-military criteria. Communities should heed one key takeaway: Don’t become complacent about your schools. A significant chunk of your economy depends on it.