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Military Children Education Coalition

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Grapevine, Texas, Wednesday, June 27, 2012

It is a distinct privilege for me to be able to come down to Texas and to be among so many who share a dedication to helping our military children have a better future, and that’s what it’s all about. 

I feel a special relationship to this group, not just because I’m Secretary of Defense, but because I spent two years in the Army with my family and with my kids and I had the opportunity to see the great work that was done as just a trooper on the lines seeing exactly the services that were provided.  And also, I had a sister-in-law who taught at one of the schools that I was at.  So I’ve got a good sense of the dedication that’s involved by all of you to try to make sure that our military kids get the best education possible. 

I am pleased to be joined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who also will be here, as well as a number of our Service Chiefs and I think that tells you a lot.

Their presence underscores the importance of education to military families and to the ability of our armed forces.  And it does relate to this and we shouldn’t lose sight of it.  What you do relates to our ability to carry out the mission of defending the country.

We are all here – the Chiefs, those involved in military leadership – to say thank you.  Thank you on behalf of the Department of Defense.  I deeply appreciate all of the work that so many here and around the country are doing to help our military families.

In a democracy, we are dependent on good education.  Education is the key to self-government, it’s the key to opportunity, it’s the key to equality, it’s the key to freedom, it’s the key to a better life.

As you know, I am the son of Italian immigrants who came to this country like millions of others seeking the opportunity that this country has to offer.  They came with little money, few language abilities, few skills.

My son – I’ve got three sons – my youngest son looked up the manifest for when my parents came through Ellis Island.  And my parents are listed and my father’s occupation was listed as “peasant”.  So he had to come to this country to work hard and to be a part of what America has to offer.   

I used to ask my father “Why would you do that?  Why would you travel all that distance, not knowing where the hell you were going, not having any idea, why would you do that?”.  And yes, they came from a poor area in Italy.  But they also had the comfort of family.  Why would you pick up and suddenly leave all of that to travel thousands of miles to come to a strange country?  And my father said the reason was that my mother and he thought that they could give their children a better life.

And that’s the American dream – that’s what all of us want for our children and it’s hopefully what they will want for their children because that is the fundamental American dream, giving our kids a better life.  It is what we want for our children and for this country. 

And helping to give future generations a better quality of life is what goes to the very heart of our military, and what everybody here is doing.  That is because giving our children a quality education is essential to giving them a better life. 

I’ve long believed that this country has an obligation to make education a top national priority.  I would not be here as Secretary of Defense were it not for the opportunities that were given to me by education.  I have a lot to be thankful for –

thankful to my parents who basically kicked my ass and said “You better get a good education,” thankful to the nuns that taught me in Catholic grammar school who also incidentally kicked my ass, thankful to a lot of inspiring teachers at the public high school that I went to in Monterey, thankful to the Jesuits who taught me at the University of Santa Clara and who taught me that one of the fundamental purposes of education is to help our fellow human beings.

Over the course of my career, because of what education gave to me, I had the opportunity to be able to give back and to help strengthen the national commitment to education.  I served as Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the old Department of Health, Education and Welfare, had the opportunity to work on efforts to promote equal education for all, served in Congress and as Budget Chair, worked on education budgets, did that as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and ultimately as White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton. 

After I left government and went back home, my wife and I decided to establish an institute for public policy at California State University at Monterey Bay.  It is an institute – and my wife continues to run that institute – dedicated to attracting the best young men and women to lives of public service, and to try to inspire them how important it is to give something back to this country, and to try to give them the tools and the knowledge they need in order to succeed in their careers.

Now, as Secretary of Defense, I am determined to do everything possible to give our military children the tools they need to succeed in the future. 

Educating military children is not only important to their future, and it is important to their future.  But it’s also critically important to the future of our military and, indeed, to the future of our nation. 

In the military, about 44 percent of all service members are parents.  The quality of education available to military children affects our overall readiness, it affects our retention, it affects the very morale of our force. 

Service members consistently rate educational opportunities for their children as one of the most important factors in their career decisions and in deciding whether or not they stay in the military. 

In equipping our military children with the best education, the best knowledge, the best skills that they need for the future, the Department is investing in its own future.  Many of these young men and women will eventually follow in the tracks of their parents and will join the military themselves.  Education is also a national security priority, and for that reason we support efforts by the National Math and Science Initiative to build technical proficiency, and support expanding the instruction of critical foreign languages. 

I have often said that when it comes to education there are four R’s, not just three – Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and Reality – the reality of the world, the global world that we live in, in which you damn well ought to have the language capability to understand that world, to understand the cultures we deal with, to understand where they’re coming from.  Frankly, one of the best things in dealing with the threats we confront is to understand who we’re dealing with.  And the ability to have language skills is truly important to that effort. 

These efforts give young people a leg up in a complex and globalized world, and help develop a cadre of experts – such as engineers and linguists – that will in turn strengthen our force. 

The bottom line is that our military is better able to defend the country when we address the long-term educational needs of those who serve and their children.   

There are about 1.5 million school-aged military children, and more than 80 percent of them attend public schools in every state.  These military-connected students learn a great deal from their parents’ work, their parents’ ethic, their parents’ dedication to duty.  Many of them travel the world at a young age, gain a deep appreciation for what public service is all about, and bring all of these traits and all of this wonderful, unique perspective to the classroom. 

For these reasons, military children represent an enormous resource, enormous asset for educational communities.

They know better than most that their mom or dad – or both – serve so that the children in this country can have a better life, a more secure life.  That is a tremendously powerful and positive message, but it also does not erase the hardships that these young people often must confront.   

The past decade of war has placed a heavy burden on those who have served and it has placed a heavy burden on the children as well.  Since 2001, more than one million children have had to deal with the emotional stress and the extra responsibilities of having a parent deployed, time and time again, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. 

By the time military children finish high school, they will have moved an average of six to nine times, and twice during high school. 

Each move, as we all know, means a transition to new friends, to a new school system, and potentially inconsistent academic opportunities and standards.  This can pose particular challenges for the estimated 195,000 military children with special needs, as the quality and availability of service varies from school district to school district.  It raises even greater challenges for these kids.

And of course, there are those students who have to endure the heartache of a Mom or Dad who never returns from the battlefield, or who returns alive to them but sometimes changed forever by the horror of war.

The toughest part of my job is to write notes to the families that have lost a loved one in battle – more importantly, to write a note to their children.  It’s tough to find the right words.  The only thing I can say is that their loved one loved them, loved life, loved this nation, and gave their life for all they loved.  And that makes them a hero forever in this country.

These sacrifices, large and small, take a toll on military children over time. 

This hit home for one special operations soldier when he was at home celebrating his daughter’s 18th birthday.  He asked his daughter, innocently enough, when was the last time he was home for her birthday.  She said, “Dad, when I was 10”.

Our military families have to deal with many tough moments like that.  They have to sacrifice a great deal for this country, and thank God that they’re willing to do that.  We have the best fighting men and women in the world.  But one thing that military parents should never have to sacrifice is the education of their children. 

This is why we all need to do more together to ensure that we meet the learning needs of our military families.  

The vast majority of our service members rely on local public school systems to meet their children’s educational needs, and that means meeting those needs has to be a team effort. 

Therefore, the Department continues to work collaboratively with the Department of Education, with states, with local school districts, and with organizations like the Military Child Education Coalition in order to ensure military-connected children receive an outstanding education. 

But we cannot deliver on our commitments to these children without the active support, cooperation, and partnership of all stakeholders.  I am deeply gratified by the significant progress that has been made over the past several years in deepening the cooperation and helping all military students receive the best possible education.  It takes teachers, it takes counselors, it takes parents, it takes community leaders, all of them working together to make this happen.   

For example, the Pentagon, together with federal, state, and local officials and administrators, and military family organizations, has developed an Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children. 

That compact is designed to alleviate many of the school transition problems that are caused when a military family has to move from place to place, from base to base.  It makes sure that transferring students are not disrupted by inconsistent policies in the areas of eligibility, enrollment, placement, and graduation. 

That includes everything from immunization records to special education services, to extracurricular participation and course waivers.

Four years ago, 10 states had signed that compact.  But as of this month, 43 states have done so, including most of the states with large numbers of military residents.  That makes a great difference.  I’d like to commend the State governors who signed on to the compact.  Together, we must continue to push all states to adopt it, and we must make sure that states and local school systems are fully implementing the provisions. 

The Department has also expanded its partnership with local school districts, in an effort to provide stronger support to schools on or near military installations. 

The Department of Defense Education Activity Partnership Grant Program supports outreach activities and provides grants that improve academic programs in military-connected school districts.  So far, this program has awarded more than 140 three-year grants worth roughly $180 million.  

These grants are providing an important infusion of resources to over nine hundred public schools that are serving 400,000 children from military families.  This will enhance student learning opportunities, it will provide social and emotional support, and it will provide professional development for educators at military-connected public schools. 

We are working to strengthen and to modernize the Department of Defense’s own school system, which serves about 86,000 students worldwide. 

My goal is to ensure that these schools remain a strong partner in sharing expertise and resources with local school systems around the country.

The Department is also actively working, in partnership with Congress and with local school districts, to improve the facilities of the 161 public schools on military installations.  Through the “Public Schools on Military Installations” program, the Department is funding the maintenance, repair and revitalization of public school facilities on bases, while local education agencies match a share of that funding. 

To date, Congress has appropriated a total of $500 million with the aim of helping to address the most urgent deficiencies.  It’s been my experience that if a school is not a proper facility, doesn’t have the proper atmosphere, doesn’t have the proper supplies and the proper equipment to do a good job, it makes it a hell of a lot tougher to provide a decent education.  Today, I am pleased to announce that a total of nearly $60 million in grants have been awarded for 3 schools across the country, including an elementary school at Fort Bliss here in Texas, as well as two schools at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to improve their facilities.

We will award additional grants this summer as part of our continuing effort to address capacity or facility condition deficiencies.  We’re going to do that at an estimated 21 public schools located on military bases.   

I want you to know that the Department of Defense has listened.  It’s not always easy to get that big bureaucracy to listen but we have listened -- listened to school districts, listened to organizations, listened to parents – and we will continue to listen to you.  We will continue to fight to give our military children the very best educational opportunities. 

This is and it must remain a team effort, and I am deeply appreciative to the Military Child Education Coalition, and all of you, for being such important members of this team. 

We truly are one family in the military community.  We have to be a family and we’ve got to hold each other’s hands because it is extremely important that as a family we take care of our family members.  Our men and women fight and sacrifice and die so that their children can have a better life and a better future.  And I want to be sure that all of us will fight as well to deliver on that promise for them, the promise for their children, and for this country. 

There’s a story I often tell that makes the point of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would get to know each other so that they could understand each other’s religions.  They would go to events together in order to be able to use that opportunity to talk about their religions.  So one night they went to a boxing match and just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross and the rabbi nudged the priest and said, “What does that mean?”.  The priest said “ It doesn’t mean a damn thing if he can’t fight”.  Now ladies and gentlemen, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country.  But very frankly, it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless we’re willing to fight for it.

You, by virtue of your presence here, have made very clear that you are willing to fight – fight to improve the education of our children, fight to help our military families and give them the support they need, fight to make sure our children have that better life, and I guess most importantly fight to make sure that we always protect and strengthen a government by and for the people.

Thank you very much and God bless all of you.  

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