07.18.11

Hope for Failing Military Schools

Senators from both parties are demanding that new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta take action to fund military schools that are falling apart, citing a Newsweek investigation.

A dozen senators in both parties are demanding that new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta take an urgent look at funding for schools on military bases after a joint investigation by Newsweek and the Center for Public Integrity found widespread decay and massive maintenance backlogs have left the children of deployed soldiers going to school in classrooms with mold, leaking roofs, and even electrical fires.

“When a service member puts on a uniform, his or her family faces the unique challenges and sacrifices that come with military service. In particular, military children often contend with long separations from a parent and numerous school transitions. Our military children should have educational facilities that enhance their learning, not facilities that cause distractions from learning or present real or potential hazards,” the senators wrote in a letter Monday.

The letter was arranged by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), who run the Senate Military Family Caucus that examines issues affecting soldiers and their families.

The letter specifically cited the joint investigation published on June 27 by Newsweek and the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatchNews, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative-reporting outlet in Washington. The report found nearly three quarters of schools that the Pentagon runs on bases are either in failing or poor shape and that the Pentagon needs more than $4 billion to replace or substantially renovate badly outdated schools.

“The report describes failing infrastructure such as persistent leaks, corrosion, and mold, as well as overcrowding and a reliance on temporary facilities,” the senator wrote Panetta, who just took over the top Pentagon job from the retired Robert Gates.

“Our nation has an obligation to provide a quality learning environment for all military children. As such, we strongly urge you to make the maintenance, repair and safety of DoDEA schools a high priority as you prepare the Department of Defense budget for future years,” they added.

The letter was signed by senators from both parties and one independent, including Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Mark Begich (D-AK), Scott Brown (R-MA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Mark Warner (D-VA).  Akaka served with the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II while Graham is a reserve Air Force officer who served in Iraq.

The letter is the latest impact from the investigative report. Nelson, whose home state of Florida is home to many military installations and soldiers, wrote a separate letter June 30 to the Pentagon saying he was “disappointed to read that needed school renovations and new construction piled up during the time of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  He enclosed a copy of the Newsweek article and demanded an update.

Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) also asked the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to do an immediate investigation of the state of military schools, calling it a “serious issue which demands immediate attention.”

The House recently defeated an effort–after the article–to trim $250 million from the budget for repairing military schools.