Like four of her 19 classmates, fifth-grader Catie Hunter struggles with an absent parent -- her soldier-father has served overseas for half her life -- and a school that is falling apart. Three in four Pentagon-run schools on military installations are beyond repair or require renovation. Emma Schwartz/Center for Public Integrity
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A bipartisan group of senators is urging the Defense Department to address “the state of disrepair” of many schools on military installations in the wake of a recent iWatch News investigation about the conditions at those schools and the effect on children who attend them.

An investigation published June 27 by iWatch News revealed an array of substandard conditions at many of the 353 schools for military children worldwide. Three in four Defense Department-run schools on military installations are either beyond repair or would require extensive renovation to meet minimum standards for safety, quality, accessibility and design. Schools run by public systems on Army posts don’t fare much better: 39 percent fail to meet even the military’s own standards, according to a 2010 Army report.

In a letter to newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, 12 senators — seven Democrats, four Republicans, and one Independent — cited the iWatch News story, and described the extent of decrepit and overcrowded base schools as “deeply concerning.” The letter called on Panetta to make the renovation and reconstruction of Pentagon-run schools a high priority in the defense budget.

“Our military children should have educational facilities that enhance their learning, not facilities that cause distractions from learning or present real or potential hazards,” stated the July 18 letter, which was organized by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., who chair the Senate Military Family Caucus and whose districts include military base schools.

A Boxer spokesman said that, while the senator’s office had been following the issue, the iWatch News story underscored the need to take action. Boxer’s office is requesting a briefing from Pentagon officials on the conditions of base schools operated not just by the Pentagon but also by local districts. Currently, a department task force is evaluating 159 military base schools operated by local public-school systems.

The Defense Department did not respond to a query about the letter.

Last week Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., sent a letter to Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office, asking for more information on the military’s backlog of roughly 130 substandard school buildings. That letter requested the GAO answer about a dozen detailed questions to help Congress address the issue, including the amount of money appropriated for Pentagon-run schools that has not been spent on the buildings, as well as whether the Defense Department is in violation of any laws or regulations.

Rush spokeswoman Sharon Jenkins said the GAO had yet to respond to the congressman’s request, but that the issues raised by the iWatch News investigation “concern him greatly as a retired Army veteran, a national leader, and someone who deeply believes that military families deserve so much better.”

Advocates for military families say the newfound congressional attention is unique. “We haven’t had too many letters from Congress to the secretary of Defense,” explained Joyce Raezer, who heads the National Military Family Association and said the letters are welcome.

Raezer pointed out that, while Defense Secretary Panetta can ensure funding to fix old and overcrowded base schools remains in the upcoming defense budgets, federal legislators could take steps to help address the problem as well — by allocating extra money for schools in the fiscal year 2012 military appropriations budget, for instance, or by requiring the department to accelerate spending for its existing school reconstruction plan.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives defeated an effort to slash $250 million for repairs to substandard base schools operated by local districts, thus paving the way for a possible Senate showdown. Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved its version of a FY 2012 military construction bill, which provides $11 billion for base projects, “including schools.” That bill is expected to move to the Senate floor for a full vote this week.

“This is going to be a multi-year endeavor and it will require both congressional and DOD involvement,” Raezer said, alluding to today’s tight budget environment. “It’s a shared responsibility.”

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.