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Are Military Special Education Students Being Left Behind?

The average military child changes schools three times more than their civilian counterparts, causing disruption to their academic development as well as their emotional health. These challenges are exponentially more difficult for military families with children with special needs, who must navigate the ever-changing military lifestyle and complicated special education system. Since the nonprofit Partners in PROMISE began surveying military special education families a few years back, they have confirmed these families are in crisis. And although there are federal and state laws protecting special education students, military families report that some schools are violating these laws.

Who is Partners in PROMISE?

Founded in 2020, Partners in PROMISE is a nonprofit dedicated to Protecting the Rights Of Military children In Special Education (P.R.O.M.I.S.E.). The organization aims to support disability communities to ensure they receive equal access to an education. Partners in PROMISE works to develop data-informed solutions that equip parents, inform leaders and enable military students to thrive.

“There is no continuity for my children. Every time we move, we start all over. Start all over fighting for services or accommodations with the school, start all over with doctors and therapists, start all over with tutors. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to set all those things up.” – 2022 Partners in PROMISE Survey Participant

girl with down syndrome walking hand-in-hand between two adults

What Are Military Parents Saying?

In 2021, military parents indicated that their child waited 5.75 months before receiving special education services after their most recent military move. This type of delay represents a procedural violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the 2022 survey, 63% of military children (aged eight and older) participated in state-wide standardized testing — this figure is lower than state and federal best practices. It did not matter what state the family lived in, what branch of service they represented or their income level. All types of military families reported issues accessing an education for their child.

The Department of Defense, White House and Congress are taking notice. President Biden requested $20 million to help ease transitions for military special education students in his 2024 Budget, and the Department of Education is putting out guidance to improve military special education experiences after receiving PIP’s data. Recently PIP presented its latest survey findings (on March 15, 2023), alongside panelists from the White House’s Joining Forces, the Department of Defense’s Office of Special Needs, the Department of Education, The Ohio State University and leaders from the disability community, such as the Learning Disability Association of America.

“Over the past two years, Joining Forces has been focused on driving change across the federal government, including through better collection and sharing of data to inform policy and program development,” said Sheila Casey, Executive Director of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative during Partners in PROMISE’s Data Release Webinar. “We know how important data is to making good decisions to support our military-connected community and the survey results you are releasing today play an important role in informing decision-makers across all sectors to begin to address these challenges.”

classroom desks facing chalkboard

Keeping Their Professional Promise

Military special education families are struggling, but still want to serve. Over 78% of survey respondents cited that their family (civilian spouse, military servicemember and special education student) experienced stress as a result of navigating the special education system. But this did not have a significant impact on the family’s desire to continue serving on active duty. “It is quite bittersweet,” said Michelle Norman, founder and Executive of Partners in PROMISE. “But it is good to know that our families still want to serve despite those obstacles and that’s why we’re here… to make sure that we can improve this process for them so that they can continue to do what they’re called to do for this great country.”

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