A deteriorating roof at Clarkmoor Elementary at Fort Lewis, Washington. Emma Schwartz/iWatch News
Reading Time: 3 minutes

There’s been a flurry of response from politicians to an iWatchNews investigation of often-deplorable conditions at schools on military installations. The probe revealed that many of the 353 base schools around the globe are falling apart from age and neglect, and fail to meet even the military’s minimum standards.

Two former Virginia governors locked in a heated Senate race — Democrat Timothy Kaine and Republican George Allen — issued a rare joint statement Wednesday regarding the problems identified by iWatch News. Their statement asked, “Don’t we as a country have a responsibility to these brave men and women — and their families — to ensure their children are provided for as their parents fight for our country?” The pair went on to say that “The simple answer is ‘Yes,’ and neither of us sees this as a partisan issue — or will allow it to become one.”

There’s been action on Capitol Hill as well. On July 12, Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) requested that the Government Accountability Office launch an inquiry into the state of base schools, calling school conditions “a very serious issue which demands immediate attention.” Six days later, on July 18, a dozen senators from both parties urged Leon Panetta, the newly appointed defense secretary, to make the repair and replacement of substandard base schools a priority.

One of those senators, Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, had already penned his own letter to the Pentagon’s Clifford Stanley, whose office of personnel and readiness oversees the education of all military children. In a June 30 letter, the senator cited the iWatchNews findings, and said they “raise questions publicly over whether we are keeping our promises to our troops and their families.”

Nelson, whose district includes publicly-run schools on four military installations, said he was “disappointed to read that needed school renovations and new construction piled up during the time of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He requested an update from the Pentagon on its funding plan to fix the most critical school buildings.

Earlier this week, iWatchNews caught up with Nelson to ask about both his letter, and the senators’ plans for addressing the issue of decrepit and overcrowded base schools.

Q: Your June 30 letter to Defense Undersecretary Clifford Stanley asks for “an immediate update” on the Pentagon’s progress since its reports to Congress, in 2008 and 2009, on funding its most dire military-base schools. Why write the letter?
A: I wrote the letter because I don’t like the idea of inferior schools for the kids of our troops, and I want to know what it’s going to take to fix them.

Q: Has your office received a response from the Pentagon?
A: Not yet.

Q: The iWatchNews investigation found that some military children are going to school in dilapidated, overcrowded and decrepit buildings. How have things been allowed to get so bad?
A: It is shameful, and I think it’s gotten so bad because we’ve placed so many demands on the military in the last decade.

Q: Parents and advocates have said the message sent to their children is, ‘We don’t care about you.’ What do you think?
A: Parents often chose a home based on the school district. I imagine the quality of schools is no less important to our troops.

Q: Our investigation revealed that Fort Stewart’s two older schools are not slated for replacement until 2015 or 2017, despite years of chronic indoor air quality problems at both. Is the Defense Department’s five- to seven-year plan to fix its “poor” and “failing” schools being reviewed by members of Congress? Is anyone questioning why it’s taking so long?
A: Some of us in Congress have asked the new defense secretary to make these schools a top priority.

Q: Reports on publicly-run schools located on military installations suggest their conditions aren’t much better. Has your office asked to see the Pentagon’s current assessments of the 159 base schools run by local school districts in this country?
A: I’ve asked for an assessment of the four civilian-run schools located on military bases in Florida.

Q: The House version of the military spending bill for fiscal year 2012 includes $250 million to fix publicly-run base schools — an appropriation that has been criticized in the past by some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Is there support for such funding now?
A: It’s low. Right now everything seems low given the financial constraints of the times. That’s why I want to get some better numbers on what it’s going to take from Secretary Panetta.

Q: The House version of the military construction bill for fiscal year 2012 includes $483 million to fix the Pentagon-run schools. What is the support for this appropriation in the Senate?
A: I think it will pass. The president has asked for just about the same amount.

Q: What else will you be doing to give this issue legs? What kind of action do the children who attend these base schools deserve?
A: I think with the work of the Center for Public Integrity and the attention lawmakers are bringing to the issue we’re on the way to righting the ship. Let’s see what Secretary Panetta does next.

Q: Have you looked into the defense secretary’s position on the military-base schools?
A: I know Leon Panetta well, and believe he’ll be a strong advocate for our military families.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.