The website of the Pentagon’s school system displays a world map with pins indicating “the director’s travels.” Posted alongside is a repeating pattern of photos with headlines reading “DoDEA Director Visits Fort Stewart, Ga.,” and “DoDEA Director Visits Europe Schools.”
Thomas Brady, a veteran public school leader now in his 15th month as director of the Defense Department Education Activity, has logged 50,000 air and ground miles visiting his system’s K-12 schools on military bases—27,800 of those miles during his first 100 days. “It is crucial for the boss of any organization to get out and see the people doing the work,” Brady said from his offices occupying three floors of the Mark Center in Alexandria, Va. Otherwise, the students, the staff and the parents might see “me as a faceless name in the Mark Center.”
DoDEA, with a staff of 300 here and in field offices in Japan, Germany and Peachtree City, Ga., serves more than 78,000 students in 181 schools (58 within the United States) in 14 far-flung districts. Only a few years ago, the notion that the military needed its own schools stateside drew fire from members of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal reform commission. But that idea did not gain traction, and now DoDEA is flourishing by many measures.
The agency has enjoyed a reasonably steady budget during a time of painful cuts across much of government. Its funding has decreased just slightly from $2.5 billion in fiscal 2012, to $2.4 billion in fiscal 2013 and $2.3 billion in fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. As part of this funding, lawmakers have provided $4 billion over seven years to improve facilities, mostly in the non-classroom areas of plumbing, heating and cooling. In fact, as many as 70 percent of DoDEA’s schools are being redone.
The “well-resourced” schools, as Brady puts it, have also had the budget to train staff in standards-based reform, including the politically controversial Common Core State Standards. DoDEA will roll out instructional materials for the Common Core this fall.
The military’s base schools go back in some form to the early 19th century. But the modern global system started in the post-World War II period as an alternative to underfunded schools in the segregated American south. DoDEA may be unique in world history, in that “we’re [serving] a forward-deployed military—I can’t think of anything comparable,” Brady said.
The fifth director since the system reorganized in 1994, Brady is a veteran Army garrison commander (at Virginia’s Fort Belvoir), and said with pride that his wife, children and three of seven grandchildren grew up in DoDEA schools. He has 17 years of experience as a public school leader: “There are not a lot of people in the Pentagon who could give me guidance in running schools, because that’s not a core mission of the organization I work for,” he said.
Brady’s public school experience includes stints as superintendent of the Providence (R.I.) Public Schools and the CEO of the School District of Philadelphia. He has also served in chief operating officer positions for the District of Columbia Public Schools and in the affluent Fairfax County, Va., Public Schools. Fairfax, he said, “is the best district in the United States,” in contrast with the other three districts, which are urban and low-income.
Relatively generous budgets make comparing DoDEA to most public schools tricky. DoDEA students have parents in a military organization that “requires them to keep up standards or get out of the organization,” Brady observed. “They have a roof over their heads, health care, three meals a day and parents who care.” In public schools, a superintendent is lucky if the students have two of those attributes, Brady added. Another advantage: DoDEA is managed so that only 9 percent of staff are administrators, a percentage equal to or better than most civilian districts, he said.
Brady has stayed connected to his staff not only through school visits, but by sending personalized first-name emails to his 8,000 teachers. He also gathers feedback directly from students. “It’s important to have lunch with students with no administrator present, so it’s an opportunity to be open and honest,” he said. His fly-ins include all-hands meetings on the schools’ future “visions,” as well as sessions with parents and the base commanders, all of whom “provide great feedback,” he added. “The base commander cares greatly about the families.”
In achievement measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, DoDEA “out-performs public schools,” Brady said. One of his domestic districts -- the one covering New York, Virginia and Puerto Rico -- was recently honored as a College Board Advanced Placement District of the Year for being the national leader among small districts while improving AP exam performance at high schools.
Brady considers his agency fortunate not to be under the regime imposed by the No Child Left Behind law, which, based on his own experience, “is remarkably draconian” with its deadlines for schools to raise achievement levels of all sub-groups or risk having the staff and principal fired. “It’s a mixed blessing,” he said of the pressure. “But we have the students only for two to three years before they then go to the state’s schools, so it’s crucial for us to improve achievement.”
It was in November 2010, several years before Brady’s arrival, that the co-chairmen of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform issued a "list of illustrative savings” that included, as the last item on a list of 58, a jab at DoDEA. Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson said that moving military children in the United States from base schools to local schools might save the Defense Department $1.1 billion by 2015. "These domestic schools exist despite the fact that nearly all military members live off base and send their children to local schools," the co-chairmen wrote.
In February 2012, rumors spread that then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would embrace the proposal (he didn’t). The same year, since-retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., offered legislation that would have closed all the Pentagon-run K-12 schools on domestic bases. (Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., deemed the proposal worth studying.)
The National Education Association wrote to the senators saying, "Educators in DoD schools have special expertise in dealing with the unique needs of military dependents, including helping children deal with frequent relocation and the psychological effects of having a parent deployed, particularly if the parent is sent to a combat zone," according to the Louisville Courier Journal.
The bill did not end up advancing. “Every seven years, in a cycle, there’s a study” on DoDEA’s worth, and “nothing has changed,” Brady said.
A newly completed study of options by the RAND Corp. is now under review at the Pentagon but has not been made public. RAND has sent drafts of the study for feedback to Brady, superintendents from the districts where RAND conducted interviews, local education authorities and academics, according to Rita Karam, a RAND policy researcher in Santa Monica, Calif. “We examine six alternatives or options” for reorganizing DoDEA, and “we examine costs, quality and risk, with risk mitigations for each,” she told Government Executive.
The stateside DoDEA schools educate only 4 percent of the 1.2 million military children, or 23,000 students on 16 domestic installations in seven states. But their small numbers mask a passionate loyalty.
Three past similar studies dating to the 1980s produced few transfers of DoDEA students to local districts, due to resistance from many stakeholders. “The local communities were strongly opposed to absorbing the additional students,” said one report. “Military parents were concerned that a transfer would compromise the quality of their children’s education, and substantial economic, logistical, and personnel problems were associated with a transfer at each site.”
Any effort to close DoDEA would greatly concern Eileen Huck, deputy director in government relations for the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. “The schools do an excellent job and have a deep understanding of the challenges military families face,” she told Government Executive. “The families like them, garrison commanders value them as a resource, and the surrounding communities also like them. The schools have helped them through a very challenging 13 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Despite some downsizing at bases such as Kentucky’s Fort Knox and Fort Campbell, the bulk of DoDEA schools appear stable on bases that are “perpetual institutions” like Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, Brady said. The big obstacle to transferring the Defense students to local schools is that it would be an “unfunded mandate” for schools that are “always underfunded,” Brady said. “It wouldn’t be a simple process. A superintendent would say DoD kids can come to my schools provided they come with resources.”
Public schools are always fighting major battles over resources, “and it’s a difficult environment to work in,” Brady said. “Thanks to the commitment of DoD, we don’t have to do that.”