Our military kids need an education system as flexible as they are

Our military kids need an education system as flexible as they are
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Our first thought on Veterans Day, as we honor the sacrifices made by those who serve our country in uniform, is their willingness to put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. The deaths of four American soldiers in Niger, including three Green Berets, last month are only the most recent reminder that it can also demand the ultimate sacrifice.

Death in combat is the most extreme sacrifice they face, but it is far from the only one.

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The majority of our 1.3 million soldiers, sailors and airmen are in their 20s, 30s and 40s with families — including some 750,000 school-aged children — who share the unique burdens of military service. One of those burdens is education mobility. The average oldest child in military families has attended at least three different schools, and more than 20 percent of them have attended four, according to a recent survey by EdChoice. Another 19 percent have attended five schools or more.

A portion of these children attend schools on military bases, most of which are stuck in decades-old pedagogy and lack the personalization and sophistication in educational practice that kids in military families need. Many others attend traditional public schools in communities near the military bases, which are unequipped to meet their unique needs. Every time they move or experience major changes in their lives, the average military family’s child loses educational momentum.

A military family has no choice when it comes to places of deployment. But we can help them ensure that their children attain their full potential by offering them educational choice. Every service man or woman should be able to choose any school that will best serve their child’s needs, whether it’s a local public school that’s outside of their zone, a private school or a charter school.  They should be given preference in charter school lottery admissions and also be able to use the funds that are allocated for their education in ways that will personalize their child’s experience, choosing from among programs that may be delivered on the ground, online or even from third-party providers, including tutors.

We can — and should — model a system for military families after our existing system of higher education, where students can craft a degree program from an increasing array of offerings that enable them to master the work that is required from them year to year.

We are fast approaching a day when there will no longer be fixed grade and age groupings in education; when students’ progress is based on what they learn and do. In the meantime, we should provide military families with an opportunity to fundamentally change the way their children are educated, irrespective of their position, class, placement, home or other circumstance.

The most flexible and effective way to give them this opportunity is to provide the proverbial “backpack full of cash” to military families and veterans to be spent on the education program they decide will best meet their child’s needs.

This approach will strike some as radical. But it merely anticipates the direction in which educational practice will inevitably move as we finally let go of 19th Century notions of teaching and learning.

It will also greatly simplify the current system of paying for the education of military dependents, a complex “Impact Aid” system whose earliest form dates back to World War II. Instead, each child would bring with him or her that “backpack full of cash” and the family decides how and where it’ll be used.

On this Veterans Day 2017, let’s resolve to do something really meaningful for the members of the uniformed services by giving the education of their children the priority it deserves. It’s the least we can do.

Jeanne Allen is the founder & CEO of the Center for Education Reform, whose mission is to expand educational opportunities that lead to improved economic outcomes for all Americans.