Linda [Hudson], thank you, for your continued leadership, and thanks as well to BAE, for its continued leadership and sponsorship, and to all who are here representing companies who have supported and are supporting our efforts, our military men and women, and most important, our children, and doing everything they can within their power to assure a good, solid education for our young men and women who will soon be the next generation of leaders for our country. And as Linda said, that is a responsibility that is second to none for all of us. And we have, as parents, no higher responsibility. As leaders, we have no higher responsibility. So thank you, and I am privileged to be here today.
I speak to you today not only as your Secretary of Defense, which I’m proud to be, your Secretary of Defense, but also as a parent.
I want to begin my comments today by acknowledging the president and CEO of the Military Child Education Coalition, who you have heard from, Dr. Mary Keller, and once again wish her much continued success, and thank her for her years of service of our country and our people. We appreciate it, and it shows.
She reminded me this afternoon, as I arrived, that I spoke at the first conference 15 years ago, at Offutt. She did not say I looked much younger, but – I anticipated that was a comment, I didn’t want to embarrass her. I told her I wasn’t sure of what I said, 15 years ago, but I do remember that event, and partly because it was Patty Shinseki and her husband – who is a dear friend, has been, and now a colleague of mine in the Cabinet, that I work with almost daily – that I believe asked me to be a part of that first speech in the state that I represented in the United States Senate. So, thank you.
I want to also recognize Lanny Trapp. General Trapp has represented MCEC in a series of meetings that I’ve convened at the Pentagon with many of our key stakeholder groups, as many of you know, because many of you have been part of those meetings. As we work through the challenges facing the Department of Defense, the perspective of MCEC will continue to be critically important to me and all of our DoD leaders.
And as I have noted, my friend Patty Shinseki, who as you all know played a very pivotal role in establishing MCEC, I know is here. And I want to say hello, and once again note that I’m privileged to be able to work with Ric Shinseki as we work toward assuring that our veterans and their families are not only cared for, but the commitment that this country makes to them, and has made to them, are fulfilled. And we do that together, and both Ric and I are very privileged to have that opportunity, to continue to serve a very unique group of Americans.
To the educators who came from near and far here today, thank you. Thank you for what you do every day for our children. And our nation, all of us are grateful to you.
One educator I want to recognize is Marilee Fitzgerald, the director of DoD Educational Activity, who will be retiring next month after nearly four decades of service in the federal government. She has been a tireless advocate for military children, and for her efforts, as she has been a role model, we thank you.
To the military children and young men and women here today, in particular, recognizing one of those who spoke prior to me, Anna – and beautifully done, Anna – I want to thank you, all of you, for what you do, and your families, and also want you to know that you have my full support as your Secretary of Defense. Protecting you and taking care of you is one of our nation’s highest priorities, and it always will be.
As many of you know, last week marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the draft and it began a transition to a professional force of professional people, and an honorable profession of volunteers. The all-volunteer force has helped build a military that is more capable, more resilient, more respected than ever before.
To attract and retain this professional, career-oriented force, DoD has had to demonstrate that it will always do the right thing for their families – that Americans don’t need to choose between serving their country in uniform and being a mom or dad. As a result, the military became a more family-centered institution. Over the past 40 years, the percentage of married enlisted servicemembers grew by more than 30 percent. And today, as you all know, nearly 70 percent of married servicemembers have children. Our support for these military children makes us stronger, and it is critical to the health and the future of our nation, and our force.
Military families anchor, they inspire, and they sustain those who defend all of us. One commitment I’ve made throughout my career – as a former deputy administrator for the Veterans Administration, president of the World USO, as a former United States Senator, and now as Secretary of Defense – is to make certain, do everything I can to ensure that military families get the credit, the recognition, and the support – and we fulfill the commitment that we’ve made to them – and they deserve.
Organizations like MCEC are critical to that mission. You do much more than parenting and teaching 1.8 million military-connected children, which in itself is a tremendous challenge. You help give children a voice, one that needs to be heard. And your work is more important today than ever before.
All Americans should be reminded that kids serve too. Most people don’t realize, as Anna pointed out in her comments, that military kids have to move. They move an average of six to nine times between kindergarten and high school graduation. That’s three times more than their civilian classmates. They don’t think of the challenges they face, like leaving their friends and having to make new ones at a new school, or people don’t think much about the tremendous stress placed on these young people – the stress of having a parent deployed, deployed in harm’s way, many times, or the anguish of coping with a parent who never returns from the battlefield. Or one who does return, but is changed in body and mind.
When you’re a child, those feelings stay with you. I was only five years old when my father, who served in the South Pacific in World War II, was called up for deployment to Korea – though he ultimately did not have to go. But I recall, remember vividly, as my brothers remember, how we took him to the bus station with my mother and my grandmother and my grandfather. Those are memories that you don’t forget.
Children grow up shaped by their experiences and their memories, as we know, meaning support we give to military-connected children today will define our nation tomorrow. Their education is a strategic investment in our future. Today I want to assure you that DoD will continue these investments even as we transition away from more than a decade of war and confront the reality of reduced resources.
This transition will inevitably lead to new and different demands. But family support is – and will remain – a key part of the all-volunteer force. The President’s budget request for fiscal year 2014 sustains military families with an $8.9 billion investment in support programs, including DoDEA.
This funding supports DoD schools, but it also helps all military-connected school-age children – the majority of whom attend public schools. Our goal is to make sure every one of them gets a quality education wherever they are in the world. DoD will continue to collaborate with states, local school districts, the Department of Education, and organizations like MCEC to achieve this goal.
A top priority has been school modernization and construction of schools on military installations. Over the past year, DoD has awarded facility improvement grants to 13 public schools on military installations, with the next 17 schools on the priority list working through the grant process.
Since 2009, the Department of Defense has also awarded 186 Educational Partnership grants. We’ve awarded these grants to military-connected public school districts, totaling more than $220 million and reaching more than 750,000 students.
Today I am pleased to announce that we have selected the first round of grant recipients for the upcoming school year. A total of nearly $20 million will be going to 15 public school districts that serve 23 military installations across the country. These grants to school systems from California to Texas to Maryland will bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, as well as foreign language studies. This year’s grant selection process is continuing, and we look forward to making more awards in the weeks to come.
Another example of DoD’s collaboration with states and local school districts is the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. I appreciate MCEC’s support for the compact, which establishes standards for enrollment, placement, eligibility, attendance, and graduation.
While the compact has now been adopted by 46 states and covers nearly 98 percent of children from active duty military families, a lot of educators don’t now know about it. In fact, many are not aware of the needs of their military-connected students, and what they can do to help. We need to fix this problem.
To help fill these gaps, DoD has worked with First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, in their efforts, in their Joining Forces initiative, to help create “Operation Educate the Educators,” a joint program that helps teacher colleges incorporate information about military children into their training curriculums. MCEC has been a critical partner since the program began, and we thank MCEC for that.
DoD has made these efforts because we ultimately share the same goal as all parents and educators – to teach our children as best we can, and make the world they inherit a better, safer place.
It is our job to ensure they learn lessons that will guide them wherever they are, throughout their life, and guide them when we’re all gone. And part of our job is to live those lessons that we teach our young people, and practice the values that we preach.
One of those lessons, and values, is honesty. We teach our children to tell the truth. Without it, you don’t have trust, and that’s the coin of the realm. So I’m going to be honest with you today about the challenges DoD is facing, particularly when it comes to our new fiscal realities.
For several years the department has been preparing for an inevitable downturn in defense spending. But fiscal pressures and a gridlocked political process have led to a far more abrupt, deeper, and steeper reduction in our budget than had been anticipated, expected, or planned for. DoD is now grappling with the challenge of sequester, which is forcing an additional $37 billion cut in our budget by the end of September.
The immediacy of these cuts makes it even more difficult to deal with, because they leave DoD with very little flexibility. If sequester levels continue, it will cut projected defense spending at DoD by another $500 billion over the next decade. This is on top of the $487 billion 10-year reduction agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which DoD is currently implementing. In terms of the next fiscal year, which begins October 1st, fiscal year 2014, that could mean an additional $52 billion cut in fiscal year 2014.
Sequester is irresponsible, and terribly damaging, but it is the law of the land, as it stands now. We teach our children to face their problems head on, and now we must do the same. We cannot run away from sequester. We must deal with it. Anything less would be irresponsible.
So we’ve had to set priorities. Our top priority is, as it should be, supporting our troops fighting in Afghanistan and around the world, and protecting our nation’s vital security interests. An important part of that is sustaining the quality of the all-volunteer force, and the military families who make it strong. While the law and our budgetary situation do not always permit us to exempt family programs, we still have made it a priority to protect them to every extent possible. But that doesn’t mean we won’t have to make some tough decisions that will affect military families.
As you know, beginning this week we’ve had to implement furloughs for most of our civilian workforce. This was a very, very difficult decision. One that was not made lightly. The last thing I wanted to do was furlough anyone.
We began this reduction process with the real possibility of having to furlough our civilian workforce for 22 days. We were able to get that number down to 11 days for most of our civilian employees, and five days for DoDEA teachers.
To do that, we instituted hiring freezes, cut back on facilities maintenance and overhead, canceled thousands of community events, and made a massive reprogramming request of Congress. We’ve cut into our readiness. Planes aren’t flying, ships aren’t sailing, and soldiers aren’t training. You don’t always see or hear about some of these changes, but they are happening. Because I could not cut any more into our readiness, in the end I had no choice but to make a tough decision on furloughs.
When it came to DoD schools, we weighed the mandated need for department-wide cuts against educational requirements we felt could not be compromised, such as school accreditation, a full curriculum, and special testing like graduation and AP exams.
We have done everything to maximize the impact – I’m sorry, minimize the impact – on military-connected children while complying with the law and the realities of the budget. Principals have flexibility on how they implement furloughs of DoDEA educators to minimize disruptions. We will maintain both the quality of education and school accreditation. Meanwhile, DoDEA leadership has and will continue to provide parents and educators with as much information as possible.
We will have to make more tough choices in the future. Perfect solutions do not exist. While these efforts to replace sequester continue, there is no guarantee they will be successful. We teach our kids to plan ahead, to be prepared. We tell them proper planning prevents poor performance. We must live that lesson as well.
In my budget meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and DoD’s senior leadership, I always emphasize that we’re going into this challenge together and that we will come out together – and I want to reassure you of this. I won’t choose up between services. We are all one service. We are going through difficult times, which you all recognize and realize, but we will get through those difficult times together.
We care deeply about what we’re teaching our military children. But we can’t forget about what they can teach us. Because we can learn a lot from our children – from their resiliency, their adaptability, and their courage. We need to be reminded of all this … for the good of their future.
Despite all of the good things we have accomplished in the last 15 years, the next 15 years – the next 15 years – will matter even more. They’re going to shape our children, and our nation. They will shape our nation and our children for the future. So today I leave you with one request: that you continue to do what you’re doing. That is my request.
Our military children look to all of us. They look to us for guidance and reassurance every day, and supporting them is the most important thing we’ll ever do. I’m proud to be on your team, and I work every day to support you and all our military children.