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States mull laws to help military families shuffling states

Thursday, February 28, 2008 | 4:36 p.m. CST; updated 12:09 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The wife of a Navy doctor, Leonor Chavez doesn't worry about her daughter having to change schools every few years. It's the paperwork that comes with the moves that daunts her.

"Every county's different. Every state's different. Every school's different," said Chavez, whose husband now works at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. "Paperwork's what daunts me the most. She can adjust pretty quickly."

Legislation under consideration in Maryland and dozens of other states is aimed at making transitions easier for kids such as Chavez's 11-year-old daughter, who started a new school in a new state this year.

Some states are also considering legislation to waive requirements unilaterally for military kids moving into the state. In Missouri, House members are considering a bill waiving for service members' children a requirement to take a test on the Missouri Constitution.

"I have actually had probably 50 to 75 e-mails and phone calls from parents thanking us for doing this," said the sponsor of that bill, Rep. David Day, R-Dixon, Mo.

Military "brats" change schools an average of six to nine times between kindergarten and 12th grade, and a proposed multistate compact the Pentagon is pushing aims to make the transition easier for the kids sometimes caught in conflicting requirements as they shuffle from school to school.

"The one thing we continuously forget to address is the sacrifices our children are forced to make," said Rear Adm. Len Hering, commander of the Navy's Southwest region.

Hering moved to San Diego from Annapolis as his middle son entered his senior year. The transition to California tested the whole family, Hering recalled.

His son hoped to take Advanced Placement courses in chemistry and calculus; instead the boy had to waste school hours repeating physical education and state history courses usually taught to freshmen. It was his third state in high school, requiring a third class in basic state history.

"He was denied AP Calculus and AP Chemistry. He took badminton with 9th graders and a third history course," Hering said.

Pentagon supporters of the bills say the multistate agreement making school transitions easier would help not just kids but the armed forces as a whole. That's because difficulties uprooting children are cited as a major reason people leave active duty.

"Military families consider the quality of their children's education to be one of their primary quality-of-life concerns," said Leslye A. Arsht, the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy.

The compact, which would take effect after 10 states approve it, would direct participating states to cut red tape for children of active-duty service members.

States receiving military transfers would have to accept temporary transcripts for class placement until official records are received. Children who don't meet local vaccination requirements could be enrolled with a short grace period before getting shots they need.

And for high school students, membership in honor societies such as Beta Club would be honored, and state-specific exit exams required for graduation could be waived or substituted for tests taken in another state. The compact would also address a top complaint of military kids: the requirements to take basic state history courses in every state they move to.

"My son had taken Washington state history, but then we moved to Maryland and that didn't count for anything," said Katie Moyer of Groton, Conn., a mother of four whose children have changed schools at least six times because their father, a Navy submariner, moves frequently.

When Moyer's now-grown son moved to Maryland, he found himself in a Maryland history class with freshmen.

"Being a senior in a class with a bunch of freshmen, I'm sure he would've preferred not to take that class," Moyer said with a chuckle.

Educators are pushing for the compact, too. Though military dependents have always had to change schools frequently, the growth of state-specific exit exams and requirements makes transferring schools more difficult now.

"We have students from all different kinds of systems with all different kinds of requirements," said William Harrison, superintendent of schools in Cumberland County, N.C., home of Fort Bragg. About 13,000 students in Harrison's schools have parents on active duty, and Harrison said handling transfers is a major task.

Add to the red tape the special needs of students who may have a parent fighting overseas, and Harrison said a multistate compact would be a welcome change for overwhelmed parents and educators both.

"There are 50 sets of requirements out there, and every state thinks theirs are the highest and the best, and they need to acknowledge they need to work for people serving our country," Harrison said.

The compact proposal has gotten a largely positive reception in state legislatures, with at least 24 considering some version of the educational agreement. But obstacles remain for politicians worried about ceding state authority over educational requirements.

"They were concerned about some of the language in the compact, that it might be giving up some state sovereignty," said Virginia Delegate Mark Cole, a Navy veteran who sponsored the compact in that state. The Virginia House adopted the compact, but it failed in the Senate last week, at least for the year.

In Georgia, where the Senate has voted for the compact but the question is pending in the House, sponsoring Sen. Ed Harbison said lawmakers are persuaded to join the agreement when they learn about how tough military kids have it.

"It's a make-sense bill. It will bring some help to the problems the children of our heroes are facing," said Harbison, whose western Georgia district includes Fort Benning, with up to 10,000 military kids living in the region.

Pentagon officials say bills making school moves easier are critical to national security.

"We have a national volunteer force, and families have to decide at each turn whether to stay in the service or not. And one of the deciders— and surveys tell us it's a very high-priority decider — is whether families are satisfied they have the kind of educational choices their children need to be successful," Arsht said.


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