For military families with special needs children, access to quality education is not a guarantee. There are roughly 135,000 military children enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). The primary focus of the program is the coordination of military orders into regions that can accommodate a special needs family and offer “family support.” The details of how this support is provided vary branch to branch.
This month, two moms-turned-activists testified before a congressional committee to demand increased accountability.
Show me the money
Special education rights are not often on the front pages of magazines or on PTA fliers. “It’s a difficult subject. It involves money and it involves law,” said Michelle Norman, the AFI 2019 Navy Spouse of the Year. Norman has been battling the town of Virginia Beach since 2014. She and her family have been in and out of court fighting for quality education for her daughter, Marisa, who has special needs.
One reason for this battle is money. School districts primarily receive funding from state and local governments through revenue generated by local property taxes and state sales taxes. Roughly eight percent of school funding comes from the federal government. Because military families are often not official constituents of the communities in which they live, the government compensates local governments for each child through something called Impact Aid.
These dollars are earmarked for all military children, with higher amounts allocated to support special needs children. However, it is unknown whether this aid is reaching its intended recipients.
“We just need data. There really is not really any other requirement to receive [and track] that impact aid. They give school districts carte blanche. It’s supposed to go to special education, but there are no wickets or requirements [to show where the dollars are spent],” Norman explained.
Is there a lawyer in the house?
When appropriate educational services are not provided, these military families turn to EFMP. Legal advice is not something that one can Google. There is no legal version of WebMD. Each case is different. State education laws vary and are complicated. Only the Marines offer EFMP legal services and not all JAG offices specialize in this type of law. This forces many military families to settle for the status quo, as they cannot afford to hire a private attorney to interpret state laws.
This process of “waiting out” military family issues instead of correcting them is not unique to special education. The recent privatized military housing crisis showed numerous cases of inaction despite the number of complaints.
“The civilian community has the benefit of participating in electing their school board members. We don’t have that chance,” Norman said. “The voices of our military families are silent.”
Mothers turned activists
Last week, Norman and Army spouse Austin Carrigg testified before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, alongside representatives from military advocacy organizations — Kelly Hruska (NMFA), Karen Ruedisueli (MOAA) and Dr. Becky Porter (Military Child Education Coalition). They first shared their stories and expertise and were later questioned by the committee to provide actionable solutions.
For Norman, step one in correcting inconsistencies and a lack of accountability is the PROMISE Act (Protect the Rights of Military Children in Special Education). The PROMISE Act was drafted by a group of four military spouses, Shannon DeBlock (Navy), Grace Kim (Air Force), Kaci McCarley (Army) and Norman. Their individual passion to support their own children led to the development of the grassroots MilSpEd2020 survey that showed a growing dissatisfaction. This information was used to garner bipartisan support from Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R – WA), Rep. Sanford Bishop (D – GA), as well U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D – VA) and others.
The PROMISE Act asks for the federal government to hold local school districts accountable for the federal funds earmarked to support military children. The proposed bill includes increased reporting, the use of standardized application forms and mandated special education legal resources across all service branches.
Norman’s husband has been deployed since April, leaving her to juggle two children, draft legislation and advocate on Capitol Hill. But rather than focusing on her personal struggles, she looks towards the future.
“It’s for the military families coming after us … so they can be committed with no distractions from doing their military duty, assured that their children are afforded the same education rights as everybody else,” she explained.
How you can help
In order for this legislation to move forward and become law it needs support in Congress. Norman emphasized, “this is not about school districts receiving money it is about our children getting the appropriate education that is mandated by law.”
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