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Remarks at the Military Child Education Coalition Training Seminar

Good morning.  Mary, thank you.  Stephanie and I – where are you Steph, my better half right there, Stephanie – we just met a few kids from the “Student to Student program,” your program.  What a simple and powerful idea: local military children – including some non-military children – who take it upon themselves to be ambassadors to new-military-children who’ve just moved nearby.  It’s a great take on the tradition of sponsorship in our military – of new transitions to new bases and new communities.  Thanks to this organization, that tradition has been passed to the next generation and that’s something to be proud of.   

That’s just one innovative way this coalition supports our military kids beyond the classroom.  And I want to thank you for orchestrating this tremendous training seminar, and for being the Department of Defense’s go-to partner on all things affecting the well-being of our military children – it means a lot to us.  And, of course, I want to thank the teachers, the counselors, the administrators, and the parents here today for your service to our next generation – for committing your mission to making their stories, success stories.

To the people in this room, the scope of our mission is clear.  Think about it this way: for our recent high school graduates, the entire time they’ve been in school – during elementary school spelling bees, junior high pep rallies, and senior proms – America has been at war.  

Last week, I spoke to our men and women on the front lines in Iraq.  Many of them are parents; many of those who aren’t hope to be someday.  For most of their lives – America has been at war.

Regardless of the tumultuous reality they’ve lived in, military children continue to muster the same grit and courage that their parents devote to defending our country.  That's what really makes our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known – our people.  They’re our ‘secret sauce’…and not just our warfighters, but also their families – and their kids – who proudly embrace their service.  Kids like Marguerite Flynn, whose story was told in MCEC’s “On the Move” magazine.  Marguerite is in high school.  Her dad is a Coast Guardsman; they’ve moved six times in her life.  She says moving is both the best and most challenging thing about being a military kid.  When Marguerite was asked about the most important thing people should know about military children, I’m told she said, quote, “Kids serve, too.”  

Kids do serve, too.  She’s right.  So many kids like Marguerite proudly own their service.  They’re determined, creative, and wise beyond their years, and they seize their ‘story’ – their unique experiences – as an opportunity.  Our challenge – the challenge this coalition has valiantly taken on – is to provide the support they need to succeed. 

As may have been mentioned earlier, I think it was, long before I was ‘Secretary Carter,’ at one time I was ‘Professor Carter.’ So I’m an educator, too.  As educators, we know education is critical to a richer quality of life for our people; as Americans, we know education is critical to a vibrant democracy; but as Secretary of Defense, I can tell you the education of our military children is critical to our mission, to our security, and to building what I call the force of the future – the military that will defend our country in the years to come. 

Let me say why.  It’s true that a capable, dynamic force of the future will depend on maintaining an unmatched operational edge and unmatched capabilities.  But it’s more than just advanced weapons platforms that keep people safe, people keep people safe.  It’s our men and women and uniform, and their families – their conviction, their courage, and their sacrifice – let me just say it again – it’s that, that makes our military the finest fighting force the world has ever known. 

If we’re going to stay the best, the U.S. Armed Forces has to be an attractive, inviting, supportive place to serve for families of all kinds.  The world is changing.  The labor market is changing.  Younger generations and young families want flexibility and choice in their career paths.  We know that.  

More and more, we’re seeing they want to be on a jungle gym, where you advance by moving around and having new experiences; not an escalator, where you get on and wait your turn. 

DoD has to keep up – and keeping up means being more responsive to the needs of our military families and their children.  That’s our obligation.  But given today’s abundance of career paths to choose from, we can’t take for granted that military children are twice as likely as other kids to join the military.  Nor can we take for granted military parents’ inclination to recommend military service to their own children.

There’s tremendous value in families upholding a tradition of service that is passed from generation to generation.  It makes our military stronger.  There’s no substitute for the unique, potent mix of passion and mentorship that comes from a military mom, dad, or grandad in the case of one of the kids I was speaking to earlier today – or all of them.  

I recently got a letter from a 4th grader who wrote, quote, “Dear Mr. Secretary, I want to be in the military because I want to defend our country and our country's freedoms.  My mom and dad are in the Air Force and that is what inspired me."

There it is.  That’s a great reason.  But military children like that future airman, who already see the virtue of their parents’ service, also see their peers chase those jungle-gym style careers.  They, too, see businesses trending toward more family-flexibility, more opportunities to pursue higher education, and fewer long-term commitments.  So we have to adapt to keep up and compete for talent.  And when we make the Department of Defense a more attractive place to join across the board, the virtue of service becomes a more worthwhile endeavor for military and civilian families alike.

So our force of the future should be family-focused – parents in uniform should never feel like they have to choose between pursuing a promotion and supporting their family. 

To give families more flexibility, we’re expanding maternity and paternity leave and we’re creating on ramps and off ramps between active duty and the reserves, so our personnel don’t have to derail their careers to get an advanced degree or have a family.   

To give servicemembers and their families greater choice, we’re overhauling the way we place personnel, too – to offer more options and potentially, potentially but not always, fewer moves – meaning fewer first days as the “new-kid-in-school.”

To give families more opportunity, we’re making sure that serving in uniform doesn’t mean you have to trade in your aspirations to wear a cap and gown if that’s what you want to do.  The post-9/11 G.I. Bill has helped over 1.3 million Americans pay for college – and those benefits are transferable to family members.  And we’re looking for ways to make it work even better.

Those are just a few ways we’re working hard to be more responsive to the needs of our modern military families, which of course support our military kids.  But when it comes to education, we have a specific set of tools we use to deliver direct support in the classroom. 

More than 74,000 kids attend DoD-run schools, overseen by our Department of Defense Education Activities office, or DoDEA.  Our schools have good teachers, high graduation rates, and above average SAT scores.  We’re doing well, but we can always do better. 

That’s why, starting with this coming school year, we’ll begin adopting “College and Career Ready Standards” across all DoD schools – so our military kids can hit the ground running in college, and be first in line for 21st century jobs. 

But DoD schools are only a small part of military child education, as you all know.  More than 90 percent of military children attend local public schools.  So working hand-in-hand with groups like this is essential to pushing progress outside the Department’s own schools. 

We’re working together to make moving easier on kids.  One way is by creating a Military Dependent Student Identifier – which lets parents, educators, and schools track performance, funnel resources, and make smart policy decisions on behalf of our military children over their entire educational careers.  If we know how particular groups of kids are performing, we can better target resources to maximize their success.  DoD firmly supports creating the identifier, and we greatly, greatly, appreciate MCEC’s ironclad support.

We’re also working to extend our reach in creative ways.  Case in point is our competitive Educational Partnership Grant Program – where funds go toward local schools with 15 percent or more military kids enrolled.  Those funds recently paid for a STEM partnership that helped more than 10,000 high school students earn AP exam scores that qualified for college credit.  That’s an incredible return on investment.  I’m proud to say that this year’s round of funding totals $52 million – and I want to thank MCEC for your continued support of the program. 

And let me just make clear that we’re also open to new ideas, and I hope all of you will think of us as a partner and resource as you tackle these challenges in your districts and neighborhoods.

I want to close with a story about a visit I made to Yakota Air Base in Japan this past April, during the Month of the Military Child.  I had the chance to spend some quality time with military families and kids.  It’s the best part of this job, hands down.  And I met some five-year-old students making bird feeders in a craft class – in my day, I remember making ash trays … It goes to show how priorities and times have changed.

To boost our military children’s potential, we must change, too.  Our security demands it.  The force of the future demands it.  And the flexible, thorough support of our modern military families and kids demands it.  Together, we can meet that demand.

I could tell you that our military children are resourceful and resilient.  I could tell you they’re courageous and compassionate.  And I could tell you they’re proud of their parents and proud to serve alongside them...but instead, I’m going to let a military child tell you in her own words.

MCEC published a poem by Katie, a 6th grader who goes to school on Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.  Her poem is titled, “Military Girl,” – and I’m going to recite a few lines. Quote:

"…I am not in the rank of command, orders I do not get. But my dad is the one who does, this I cannot forget. I am not the one who fires the weapon, who puts my life on the line. But my job is just as tough, I am the one who left friends behind...My dad makes the sacrifice; my dad works to keep this country free, But so do my mom, brother, sister, and me. Even though it might get a little wild, I stand with the rank known as the Military Child.”

That poet, Katie, is one of nearly 2 million military children whose parents’ serve among our active-duty, Guard, and Reserves.  That’s the scope of our education challenge – and our opportunity. 

Marguerite, Katie, and thousands of kids like them give us a glimpse of the grit and wisdom our military children have, and need, to make their lives work.  Our mission is to have their back.  To cheer them on.  To make sure their stories are success stories, happy stories, and stories of fulfilled lives.  Because the brave men and women who defend our freedoms and risk their lives all over the world – deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing their families are taken care of back home. 

Thank you for all you do.