The school buildings described in Kristen Lombardi’s recent article are on-base facilities that many communities do not feel local taxpayers should be responsible for funding. Why? They primarily enroll military-dependent children only. So when an on-base school building needs repair or there is a need for a new building, the local community won’t support a bond referendum.
The federal government is responsible for providing funding to public schools serving military dependent students to build, repair or renovate buildings. That precedent was established 61 years ago when President Harry S Truman signed two laws that have become the foundation of what is now called Impact Aid.
Between 1951 and 1977, Congress appropriated more than $1.5 billion for public schools serving federally connected children — including military-dependent students — to build and repair school facilities to the tune of 6,505 projects. Congress consolidated education law in 1994 and merged school construction into the overall Impact Aid law.
But nothing is ever that simple in Washington and funding has not always flowed smoothly to local schools. The Education Law Center says: “Except for tax law that provides very favorable financing for school districts … the federal government has assumed no responsibility for the quality of public school facilities. There is no staff dedicated to this issue at the U.S. Department of Education … it is considered a local school district responsibility.”
The notion that school construction is and should be a local responsibility is a position shared by many congressional conservatives. They argue that public schools are locally controlled and financing should be decided by the communities that provide the funding.
Luckily, Congress hasn’t totally reneged on its responsibility. Between 1996 and 2011, Congress appropriated $339.6 million in Impact Aid school construction funding. Dollars go to eligible districts with 50 percent or more Indian land- or military-dependent students. In 2008, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, with the support of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was successful in gaining a $100 million appropriation for school facilities for institutions enrolling federally connected children — both public schools serving military installations and children residing on Indian Trust and Treaty land.
But the regular federal funding level for school construction has remained at slightly under $18 million per year since 2006 and these limited dollars are spread throughout the Impact Aid community. Meanwhile, the facility problems facing on-base schools aren’t being adequately addressed.
The real solution must come from the Department of Defense. Just over a year ago, then-Secretary Robert Gates’ called for an inventory of facility conditions at school buildings operated on base by both public school districts and the Department of Defense. That is a clear indication there is a recognized responsibility within the Pentagon.
Add to the equation those lawmakers who believe the 61-year Federal obligation is still recognized by Congress and there’s a reason to be optimistic. School districts with on-base facility needs must work together to convince their decision-makers the upgrades are beyond the ability of local communities to fix.
Congress as well as the Obama administration must not only be reminded, but convinced, it is their responsibility to ensure no military- dependent students are left behind because of the condition of the school building in which they are educated.
John Forkenbrock is executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.