House defeats effort to cut funding for repair of military base schools

Advocates for military children hope vote signals understanding of federal role

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Catie Hunter, 11 years old, standing under the area she calls "Niagara Falls" -- for the rain that cascades down from the rotting roof.

Emma Schwartz / iWatch News

The House of Representatives has defeated an effort to cut funding for repairs to decrepit and overcrowded schools on military installations. The conditions at those schools — and their effects on the thousands of soldiers’ children attending them — were the subject of a recent investigation by iWatch News.

The effort to eliminate renovation and construction funds came in the form of an amendment filed by Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. Flake’s amendment would have slashed the Pentagon’s “Operations and Maintenance” account in the fiscal year 2012 military spending bill by $250 million — thereby completely wiping out money appropriated for improvements at base schools run by local public-school systems. The proposed funding mirrors the $250 million set aside for substandard base schools operated by local districts this fiscal year, which Congress passed in April.

An investigation posted June 27 by iWatch News revealed an array of substandard conditions at many of the 353 schools for military children worldwide. Three in four Defense Department-run schools on military installations are either beyond repair or would require extensive renovation to meet minimum standards for safety, quality, accessibility and design, the iWatchNews probe found. Schools run by public systems on Army posts don’t fare much better: 39 percent fail to meet even the military’s own standards.

In remarks on the House floor last week, Congressman Flake cited the iWatchNews story and acknowledged the “bad shape” of many base schools run by local districts. “I don’t question that. Nobody does,” he said. Yet fixing these base schools, Flake argued, is not necessarily the responsibility of the Defense Department. He suggested that money to renovate and replace these base schools should come from either the districts themselves or from specially designated “impact aid” for public schools with students whose parents are in the military. That program falls under the auspices of the Education Department, whose fiscal 2012 budget is reportedly in the process of being slashed by up to $30 billion.

“If we have this kind of money to throw around for defense,” Flake added, “then we ought to be cutting more defense funding.” Flake’s office declined to elaborate in response to a query from iWatch News. .

Flake’s argument had little sway over the House, which went on to defeat his measure by a 380 to 39 vote. The House appropriation for publicly-run base schools follows passage last month of a separate fiscal 2012 military construction spending bill, which includes $483 million to renovate or replace 13 of the roughly 130 decaying base schools that are actually run by the Pentagon.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, touted both funding measures in a statement to iWatchNews. The committee, he said, “has grown increasingly concerned over the safety and quality of school facilities on military bases.”

Rogers promised that the committee “will continue to provide oversight and additional funding as needed in the future to ensure the children of those fighting for our country have the best possible educational environment.”

Advocates for military children say they’re elated over the “wide” defeat of the Flake amendment, which they take as a sign that lawmakers are beginning to understand the federal government’s role in supporting the educational needs of military children after 10 years of war. Joyce Raezer, the director of the National Military Family Association, explained that “the military — and thus the nation — incurred a part of the responsibility for providing these kids with a quality education in a safe and sound building when it recruited and retained those service members and sent them to war.”

She and others hope the House support for base schools operated by public school districts helps the measure in the Senate, where a similar measure has in the past drawn criticism from some senators, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). But other key senators, including the Senate Appropriations chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HA), represent congressional districts with a significant number of base schools run by local systems that would benefit from the appropriation.

“I think we have a shot for keeping it in there,” said John Forkenbrock, of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which lobbied House members to set aside the spending for the publicly-run base schools. “And there’s strong support on the Senate side for military children.”

Indeed, on June 30, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version of the FY 2012 military construction bill, which provides $11 billion for base projects, “including schools.” That bill will move to the Senate floor for a vote in upcoming weeks.

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