By the time the average military child graduates from high school, he or she has attended six to nine different schools, in different cities, states, and sometimes even different nations. By the time most military children reach 5th grade, close to 30% of them will already be attending their third different school. And by the time they are in high school, 27% will have had to change schools at least once between 9th-12th grade; 16% twice, according to a 2020 survey by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC).
These transitions affect about 185,000 military kids annually, and military families worry about the effect that the military-directed moves have on their children’s education. In fact, military children’s education remains a top-five issue of concern for active-duty families, according to years of annual survey findings by Blue Star Families.
As any parent of a graduating senior knows, marshaling all the requirements of one school, one school district, and one state for high school graduation can be daunting enough—imagine having to navigate that process with a child whose transcript is a hodgepodge of classes and activities reflecting distinctly different qualities, capacities, priorities, curricula, and requirements of a wide variety of school districts; and not because they’ve had any choice in the matter, but because their military parent has been following the orders of the U.S. government.
Education policy is mostly set at the state and local level in the United States, in a tradition that goes all the way back to the nation’s founding. This means that military children (and by extension, their parents) are at the frontline of experiencing all the secondary effects—in terms of paperwork and bureaucracy—that result from all those state-by-state different regulations, requirements, and curricula. By that same token, they are probably the most experienced consumers of the educational system, because they have had to navigate the sometimes very wide indeed disparities that exist between school districts.
Nearly two-thirds of military children attend public school, with the remainder attending private schools, DoDEA schools, home school, or virtual school. When separately surveyed by MCEC and by the National Military Family Association (NMFA), military teens, young adults, and their parents all expressed frustration with district-level policies that prevent them from enrolling in schools or signing up for needed classes—or extracurriculars like sports and music groups—before they have a permanent address in their military parent’s new duty station. When military families PCS (mandatory relocation), they frequently have to live in temporary housing for the first few weeks or months, and that housing may be in a different district from their permanent housing, causing the military child to miss paperwork deadlines that may set him back a whole academic year.
Additionally, the frequent moves mean that military children feel like they are in an endless cycle of taking different versions of the same entry-level exams and having to go through “tiresome and unnecessary” reassessments. Military children do not want to be viewed as victims, but they also deeply desire that their teachers and school administrators understood something about the military lifestyle; that they might not be “slow” but rather used to different teaching styles, curricula that emphasized different subjects, been preparing for different graduation standards, or that the school in question is making them take again courses they have already taken.
They also wish those teachers and administrators understood that it takes around three months if not more (especially once in high school) for the military child to acclimate to their new surroundings and school, and that things like deployments of a parent affect everything from military children’s emotional and psychological state to their home responsibilities. Above all, military children “just want a level playing field when [they] transfer in,” as well as the chance to “be kids for a while…even if [they’re] faced with adult challenges.”
Recognizing some of these barriers to education for military children, NMFA has advocated for the Interstate Compact for Educational Opportunity for Military Children, drafted by the Council of State Governments in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Defense. The Compact is meant to address precisely these issues encountered by military families: eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation, with the goal of providing a consistent policy for military children in every school district and every state that chooses to join. Currently, in theory, all 50 states and the District of Columbia participate in the interstate compact, with a commissioner responsible for implementing the Compact in his or her state, but gaps still exist—especially among the actual teachers and officials at the individual school level, many of whom continue to be unaware of the law and its requirements.