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Education - Our First Priority

COLUMBUS AFB, Miss. -- Military service brings many quality of life challenges, but there is no greater challenge for Air Force families than providing a safe, high quality education for their children. Frequent moves make school to school continuity difficult, and parental control comes at a high cost, dictating where a family chooses to live or driving the decision to pay tuition, home school, or even leave children with a relative where schools are good. Education is a real challenge in Mississippi, where the quality of public education ranks at or near the bottom of all 50 states. Families moving to Columbus AFB face few good education options, and those moving away confront the fact that their children probably fell behind while they lived here. This situation is unacceptable, and that is why improving education is my number one priority with our local communities.
What has been done so far? First, we identified the problem and raised it to our top priority. Education has been "on the scope" in the past when Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) threatened Columbus AFB, but once the BRAC threat faded, so did attention to the problem. Fixing education will take time and persistence by military and community leaders and citizens, so now is the time to work hard. We can't wait until the year before the next round of BRAC and expect real change. And of course, every year we wait to take action is another year of lost opportunity for the children of Columbus, Lowndes County and the base.
Though the wing has a small minority of local school students, we are the region's number one employer several times over. Logically, one of our strongest allies is the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, the combined chamber of commerce and economic development organization. The Link has very successfully attracted new businesses to this area, but real, deeply-rooted growth will follow only if employees of these businesses choose to live here. The single greatest enhancement to property values is a strong public school system, so it was no surprise that education was one of the five major areas in the Link's excellent Community Development study. I fully support the results of this study--namely, to fund a follow-on project for experts to study local education and recommend money-saving ideas and programs to improve quality.
The same week the Link presented its education study to the community, I took the opportunity to invite General Paul Hester, the PACAF commander, to address local leadership about education. General Hester's home town is West Point, so he was the perfect speaker for the Wing's Education Summit, where we hosted some of the region's business, political, education, and military leaders and asked for their commitment to constructive discussions and action.
Since General Hester's visit, we have continued to keep education in the forefront. I have used dozens of speaking engagements in town and on base to communicate our concerns about education and keep this issue in the public eye. I signed a wing policy to permit all military and civilian employees to volunteer in local schools within the constraints of our mission, and we provided a copy of this policy to local business to encourage them to do the same.
Finally, the wing just finished its first economic and education census, and I hope everyone reading this who is employed at Columbus took part in the census. The census will provide the first hard data we've ever had on exactly who lives where and attends which schools.
Our efforts have generated much discussion and brought three proposals which are currently in discussion. First, Lowndes County proposed that the City of Columbus release all base children to attend Lowndes County Schools. Second, the City of Columbus proposed that the parents of all students, city and county, be provided the freedom to choose which school their children will attend. Third, there is legislation pending in the Mississippi state legislature to provide military children state-wide with school choice.
The base lies in the Caledonia school zone, but base students are bussed to Columbus City schools because of historical events that are difficult to reverse due to federal court oversight that began during desegregation. Because the Lowndes County proposal affects only a small population of students (base kids) and would adversely affect the racial mix in city schools, we are told the federal courts are not likely approve this proposal. On the other hand, the city proposal to give choice to all students has a chance of court approval since it applies to all students rather than a limited group. This proposal is just like the school choice that already exists for city elementary schools. Provided such an option, all parents in Lowndes county, the city of Columbus, and the base could choose to send their children to whichever school best meets their desires.
School choice is a great start, but our communities must embark on a concerted effort to raise expectations and standards for all schools. Educational expectations come straight from parents and other student caregivers--those people with the greatest influence over the development of our children through young adulthood. As parents we must expect more and judge the educational results on national and global standards, not local standards.
What can you do? First, let your school boards and politicians know that you support full funding of the Link proposal for experts to study education improvement. Outside expertise will provide the objective viewpoint and ideas our school systems need. Second, get involved. If you have children, you must be involved in their education. Whether you have school age children or not, take advantage of the new wing policy and volunteer in your local schools and encourage your coworkers and friends to do the same. Take part in your school's Parent-Teacher Association, or start one if the school doesn't have one. Finally, communicate. Let your city or county politicians, school boards, and other parents know you support school choice and working together to improve education for everyone. Use your experience with schools in other states to tell local schools what you like and dislike and provide constructive input to raise standards. Address specific problems directly with the schools. I've met educators across the city and county, and they are as motivated as we are to give the best to our children, but they must know what we expect.
I am dedicated to real improvement in education, and I will not be satisfied without significant progress! Fortunately, momentum for change is building. The Columbus area already has so much to offer, and creating a world class education system will make this community the shining star of the southeast, and keep Columbus AFB the "base of choice" for years to come.