GRAPEVINE, Texas - The Defense Department recently awarded $60 million to three public schools on two military installations, the latest example of its efforts to invest in the education of military children, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said at an education seminar here today.
The grants, to schools serving children at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., are the first -- with more to come this summer – of a $500 million congressional appropriation for the department to improve facilities at 161 public schools on military installations, Panetta announced at the Military Child Education Coalition's 14th national seminar.
DOD also has awarded an additional $180 million in grants to more than 900 public schools that support 80 percent of the 1.5 million school-age military children, the secretary said. It has done that while also strengthening and modernizing the Department of Defense Education Activity schools, which serve 86,000 military children, he added.
"Educating military children is not only important to their future – and it is important their future – but it's critically important to the future of our military and our nation," Panetta told seminar participants. The coalition works to improve the education of all school-age military children, whether they are in DOD, public or private schools.
To underscore his point, Panetta noted that he is joined at the two-day seminar in this Dallas suburb by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and the vice commandant of the Marine Corps.
"That tells you a lot," he told the hundreds of participants. "What you do relates to our ability to carry out the mission of defending the country. We are all here to say 'thank you.'
"In a democracy, we are dependent on good education," he added. "Education is the key to self-governance, the key to opportunity, the key to equality; and education is the key to freedom. It is the key to a better life."
Panetta told of his own parents' immigration thousands of miles from their home in Italy to the United States, where his father's occupation was marked as "peasant" at Ellis Island, N.Y., all so their children could have a better life.
"That's the American dream," he said. "That's what all of us want for our children, and hopefully what they want for their children."
Helping to give future generations a better quality of life goes to the very heart of the military and what everyone at the seminar is doing, Panetta said, and a quality education is essential to a better life.
"I've long believed this country has an obligation to make education a top national priority," the secretary told the audience, adding that he has tried to do that in his four decades in government.
"I would not be here as secretary of defense were it not for the opportunities given to me by education," he said. "Now, as secretary of defense, I'm determined to do everything possible to give our military children the tools they need to succeed in the future."
About 44 percent of service members are parents, and they consistently rate the availability of quality education for their children as a high priority in their career decisions, Panetta said. "The quality of education available to our military children affects our overall readiness, our retention, and it affects the very morale of our force," he added.
"In equipping our military children with the best education, the best knowledge, the best skills they need for the future, the department is investing in its own future," he said. "Many of these young men and women will follow in the tracks of their parents and join the military themselves."
Education also is a national security priority, Panetta said, causing the department to support efforts such as those by the National Math and Science Initiative to build technical proficiency and to emphasize the need for foreign language skills.
"Our military is better able to defend our country when we address the long-term education needs of those who serve and their children," the secretary said.
Military children have many challenges, Panetta noted. More than a million have had a parent deploy to combat since 2001, and many are forever changed by war, he said. Most will move six to nine times before they graduate from high school, and 195,000 of them have special needs, he said.
The department can't meet the education needs of military children without the "active support and cooperation of all the stakeholders" – teachers, parents, community leaders, and state and local governments, the secretary said. Through such partnerships, the department has prompted 43 state governments to pass laws easing the transfer of school credits for military children as they move from state to state and from outside the country, he added.
"I want you to know that the Department of Defense has listened," he said. "It's not always easy to get that big bureaucracy to listen, but we have listened -- to school districts to organizations, to parents -- and we've listened to you. We will continue to fight to give our military children the best in educational opportunities."