Lost in the discussion of poor military housing is its impact on K-12 education
© Getty Images

The scandalous condition of housing for military families raises an equally important related concern: the impact on the ability of the children in these families to learn.

The worry for those of us who work with military families on ensuring that they have adequate support and services is that the poor living conditions, documented in recent congressional hearings, adds yet another huge stress to an already stressful lifestyle. The nation’s 1.2 million military-connected children face sweeping disruption due to their highly nomadic lives, moving to different schools and different parts of the country every two to three years. Housing conditions make it even harder to live a normal life and transition effectively to new school settings.

ADVERTISEMENT

And the condition of some military housing is shockingly bad.

At a recent hearing, for example, senators heard testimony from military spouses who described rampant black mold, termite infestations, mice, rats, asbestos and lead paint with housing providers failing to make the housing habitable.

Soldiers and their families at Ford Hood in Texas, one of the Army’s largest facilities, gave their leaders an earful at a townhall gathering describing “deplorable conditions inside on-post housing, ranging from blooms of mold and lead paint to infestations of snakes and cockroaches and dangerously faulty window screens.”

What’s more, dismal housing for military families is nothing new. A casual perusal of the Government Accountability Office website finds reports dating back to 1979 on poor housing for junior enlisted service members. The most recent episode only serves to underscore how poorly many continue to be treated, despite the efforts of successive administrations.

It’s easy to forget that amid this shoddy and outright dangerous housing are school age children who are supposed to be getting an education. For learning to take place in young minds, there needs to be at least a modicum of stability — and adequate housing plays an important role.

Researchers at Boston College and Tufts University have noted a strong link between housing and educational success. And while their report isn’t a perfect analogy to military families, it is instructive.

“When families lived in poor-quality housing, parents experienced more psychological stress, and children showed elevated levels of emotional problems, including symptoms of depression and anxiety, and elevated behavior problems, like aggression, lying, and deceitfulness,” they found in a study of low-income families.  “Adolescents also showed lower school success in core academic subjects.”

School-age kids already suffer from a distressing amount of anxiety without the advent of failing housing. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found 70 percent of U.S. teenagers reported that anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers.

Military officials recently reported some positive results — that they have made strides fixing problems in thousands of privatized homes on bases since earlier this year. “We’ve heard encouraging news,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee.

And the military also has a solid plan going forward. In addition to fast-tracking fixes to housing, all branches of the military are introducing a housing bill of rights for service members. The draft of the document, designed to hold commanders more accountable, says that “residents have the right to reside in homes and communities that are safe; meet health and environmental standards; have working fixtures, appliances, and utilities; and have well-maintained common areas and amenity spaces.”

It is well worth underscoring that these are among the essential prerequisites for academic success. By fixing the housing conditions, by providing decent living quarters for the people who sacrifice plenty to protect the nation, military families can give their kids a shot at a succeeding in school and in life.

Ham is chairwoman of Military Families for High Standards, a non-profit that pushes for rigorous education opportunities for military-connected children.