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Sequester Slashes Budgets At Schools On Military Bases

Ben Bradford

The 89,000 children taught in schools on military bases are losing resources and school days, because of the federal budget cuts known as the sequester. The cuts are set to deepen in October.

The Pentagon lost nearly one-sixth of its budget this year due to budget cuts, including the sequester. And, because of the across-the-board nature of the cuts, nearly every division is effected, other than troops actively fighting in wars. That includes schools. On Fort Bragg, the nation’s most populous Army base, educators have seen their budgets slashed, in some cases by more than half from previous years.

The 5,000 Pre-K to 8th grade students at Fort Bragg have resources that other school districts would envy. At Albritton Middle School, electronic, touch-screen white boards hang on classroom walls, with remote controls at students’ desks, and the school has its own film department.

In one 6th grade classroom, students are creating their own mini golf courses. They have laid out strips of fake grass and placed blocks of wood, monster heads, and other obstacles to learn about geometry and physics. Each group has a putter to test out their design.

Principal Pat Schob says the sequester hasn’t changed much.

“We are extremely well-funded here, so we have not really felt the impact of the budget cuts,” Schob says.

“They feel that we’ve done a pretty good job of not impacting them very much,” reiterates Linda Curtis, a deputy director at DoDEA, the Department of Defense Education Activity.

Curtis says the department made its cut by holding off on implementing new curriculum, curtailing travel, and temporarily halting all professional development. Student transportation and even sports are still intact at schools.

The numbers tell a more drastic story, though. On Fort Bragg, Albritton’s operating budget is less than half what it was last year. Butner Primary School’s is down to a third. All schools, across all bases in the U.S. and abroad, have had their funds for new textbooks and replacement furniture eliminated. Teachers have half their normal budget for supplies. Maintenance has been halved.

In addition, the Pentagon has announced furloughs for its entire civilian workforce, which includes teachers. Principals, administrators, and other year-round employees will lose more than two weeks. Teachers will lose one week—and schools will close on those days. So, this year, all 11 schools on Fort Bragg will close for the first five Fridays of class. The missed time reduces the total school year to 178 days—just three more than the number needed for accreditation and seven less than the 185-day school year required by North Carolina public schools.

At Albritton, Schob says the school will try to preserve classroom time, by avoiding all-school meetings and remaining open longer on Wednesdays.

No matter how well they mitigate the loss, University of Maryland-Baltimore County professor Dave Marcotte says expect learning to suffer. Marcotte has conducted studies on the correlation between school days and learning.

“Taking five days off the calendar, you’ll lose about a 20th of the typical learning gains in math and reading you’d expect over the typical year,” says Marcotte.

Marcotte says trying to “trim the fat” from a schedule to make up time doesn’t solve the problem. For instance, removing the often-unproductive last few days of school, just means they happen earlier. It may be even more challenging at military schools, where as many as a third of the student body can turn over each year, because of deployments.

Curtis says, if anything, DoDEA teachers have an advantage.

“They’re used to catching kids up whenever they need to, so I think our teachers will do a fine job of assuring our students still get a full year of accreditation,” Curtis says.

Even though they take place next school year, the teacher furloughs are actually part of the 2013 cuts—the first year of the sequester. Deeper cuts begin in October, so schools could potentially lose even more days from the upcoming year.

DoDEA describes the cuts to maintenance, supplies, curriculum, professional development, and travel as temporary postponements during a dry year. Eventually, schools will need new textbooks and other supplies. Some will need repainting or other maintenance, which grow more expensive when deferred. But, the sequester is scheduled to continue for another nine years, and it’s unclear how schools will pay for those things, while staying above the minimum days needed for accreditation.

The Pentagon hasn’t released a budget that incorporates those cuts, though, so schools are planning as though they won’t occur.

“If we know that it’s going to happen again next year—and we don’t know that, I don’t think anyone does—we’ll have the whole year,” Curtis says. “So, it’ll be much easier to plan and prioritize our needs for our students.”

At the moment, there’s no significant movement in Congress to rescind the sequester.