By James R. Carroll, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
WASHINGTON -- If massive Defense Department cuts go through next year, little-noticed potential victims on the chopping block include the schools on military bases in the U.S. and abroad.
The cuts could close some of those schools, cut employees and possibly increase the size of classes in those schools that remain open, according to an analysis of the cuts prepared in September by the Republican staff on the House Armed Services Committee. The analysis did not name any specific schools.
Parents potentially could pay $2,200 per student for enrollment in the remaining schools, the analysis said.
In addition, the Defense Department would no longer pay school districts for the impact of large numbers of students from military families attending local schools, according to the report.
In offering an overview of his agency's five-year budget on Jan. 26, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta did not mention closing on-base schools as part of a broad effort to reduce military spending by $259 billion. But he said the cuts required "a series of tough budget choices."
President Obama on Monday releases his fiscal 2013 budget proposal, a document that will include far more detail about specific reductions.
Defense officials last week declined to elaborate on the school-closing threat.
"Until the president releases the budget, we won't have anything further to add about potential cuts," said Lt. Commander Kate Meadows, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Ryan Brus, spokesman for Fort Knox near Louisville, Ky., called potential school closings "pure speculation."
"It's too early at this point (to comment) since no decisions have been made," he said.
Congress last year was unable to agree on legislation to reduce the debt and deficit. As a result, under provisions of the August debt limit deal, automatic cuts totally $1.2 trillion over 10 years are scheduled to kick in next January. Half of those cuts would come from domestic programs and half from military programs.
For defense programs, that means the $600 billion in cuts would be on top of the $259 billion in cuts over five years that Panetta and the White House will propose on Monday.
Some Republicans in Congress are sponsoring legislation to postpone the automatic defense cuts, but Obama has said he would veto such an attempt without a bipartisan accord on long-term spending cuts.
If Congress and the White House fail to stop the automatic cuts, the schools would be among numerous programs where reductions would be required, according to the House armed services panel's GOP staff analysis.
The Defense Department Education Activity operates 120 schools overseas, with 64,000 students and 7,800 employees.
The department also has 70 schools in the United States, with 34,000 students and 4,600 employees.
The on-base schools already have attracted bipartisan attention from the presidential debt commission and from lawmakers looking for ways to reduce government spending.
In November 2010, the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsility and Reform issued a "list of illustrative savings," although they conceded not everything on the list was backed by the other commissioners.
But Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson said that moving the children of military personnel out of base schools and into local schools should be considered because it would save the Defense Department $1.1 billion by 2015.
"These domestic schools exist despite the fact that nearly all military members live off base and send their children to local schools," the co-chairmen wrote. "The program was initially established when schools in the South were segregated, however it is no longer clear why the system is still necessaryâ€¦"
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., proposed an amendment to the defense authorization bill in November that would have closed all schools on U.S. bases, essentially embracing the Bowles-Simpson recommendation. The amendment was never taken up by the Senate.
Coburn pointed to a series last summer by the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News that found that three out of four military-run schools were beyond repair or required major renovations.
Pentagon report cards sent to Congress in 2008 and 2009, obtained by the center, revealed that almost 40 percent of Defense Department-run schools were in the worst category of "failing," which meant it cost more to renovate than replace them. An additional 37 percent were listed as in "poor" condition, requiring major renovations or replacement.
The National Education Association opposed Coburn's effort, as well as an amendment by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to study the feasibility of moving to schools to the Department of Education or closing them entirely and sending students to nearby schools.
"Our nation's Department of Defense schools offer an excellent education," the NEA wrote to senators. "In fact, many families admit to choosing to remain living on base so their children can attend these schools.
"Educators in DoD schools have special expertise in dealing with the unique needs of military dependents, including helping children deal with frequent relocation and the psychological effects of having a parent deployed, particularly if the parent is sent to a combat zone."