A recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that better oversight is needed to improve services for military dependent students with special needs. Currently, the Department of Defense runs a worldwide school system that includes the operation of 196 schools in seven states and twelve foreign countries. These schools serve approximately 85,000 children worldwide broken up to 58,000 overseas and 27,000 domestically. Of those 85,000 students worldwide about 12% or 10,200 students receive special education services.
Unlike other School Districts, the DOD schools do not receive IDEA funding but they are still required to provide the same protections to their students with special needs afforded under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Below is the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process that DOD schools utilize:
In order to implement the DOD policies each branch of the Military is required to establish its own Exceptional Family Member Program (EFM). The three core components of the EFM program according to the GAO study are:
- Identification and Enrollment. Active duty service members with eligible family members are required to enroll in the EFM program for their branch to document dependents’ special needs, so that medical and educational personnel can review the availability of medical and educational resources in planned assignment locations.
- Assignment Coordination. Each military branch is required to identify, document, and consider a military family member’s special needs during the process of assigning service members to a particular installation. Screening and assignment coordination occur when the branch’s personnel command requests that medical and/or educational professionals review a family member’s documented needs to determine the availability of DOD’s specialized medical and educational services at a planned location.
- Family Support. Each military branch’s EFM program is required to include a family support component. EFM program family support personnel assist families with special needs by helping them identify and access programs and services. Services may include information and referrals for military and community services, education and training about issues related to the special needs, local school
This system was set up to determine whether a planned assignment for a service member would have appropriate special education services for their child with special needs. All DOD schools do not have the same special education capabilities at each school. It is the responsibility of the DOD to determine, prior to an assignment, whether a service members child can receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) from the DOD school where the service member will be assigned. As part of this process, in 2010, the DOD established the Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs (OSN). According to the GAO study the responsibilities of the OSN include:
- developing and implementing a comprehensive policy for the support of military families with special needs,
- establishing and overseeing associated programs,
- identifying gaps in DOD services for military families with special needs,
- developing plans to address gaps in DOD services through appropriate mechanisms such as enhancing resources and training, and ensuring the provision of special assistance,
- monitoring the programs of the military departments for the assignment of service members who are members of families with special needs and the programs in support of such families, and
- advising the Secretary of Defense on the adequacy of such programs in conjunction with DOD budgeting and planning activities.
The purpose of the GAO study was to determine whether DOD is meeting the special needs of military dependent children. In doing this “GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, analyzed DOD documents and data, and conducted interviews with officials from multiple DOD entities, including schools. GAO also held 22 focus groups with parents of children with special needs during site visits and phone interviews at eight military installations worldwide.” Based on this study GAO came up with three recommendations:
To ensure that military families are assigned to overseas installations that can readily meet their children’s special educational and medical needs, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense direct the secretaries of each branch to ensure that all military dependent children of school age are medically and educationally screened in accordance with each branch’s policies and that all required educational screening forms are forwarded to DODEA for educational assignment recommendations prior to families’ relocations.
To improve oversight of the military branches’ programs for families with special needs, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense direct OSN to establish uniform benchmarks and performance goals for the identification/enrollment and assignment coordination components of the military branches’ EFM programs. These goals can be used to determine whether EFM programs are achieving desired outcomes across DOD and identify areas for improvement. For example, such performance goals could include specific targets and benchmarks for reducing screening failures over time and reassigning families who have been sent to locations that are unable to meet their children’s educational or medical needs.
To strengthen OSN’s oversight over the military branches’ EFM programs, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense direct OSN to develop and implement a process to assess the branches’ compliance with DOD-level EFM program policies and requirements, and to identify and report any issues related to noncompliance to senior leadership for corrective action. For example, OSN could consider conducting periodic, unannounced site visits to select military installations on a periodic basis to monitor implementation of their EFM programs.
To read the entire 42 page GAO report click here.