Military Dependent Students: Better Oversight Needed to Improve Services for Children with Special Needs

GAO-12-680 Published: Sep 10, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2012.
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What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) provides special education services through a complex system that varies by location. Domestically, DOD provides special education mainly within DOD schools. In contrast, DOD schools overseas vary in the types and levels of disabilities they are readily equipped to serve. For example, DOD schools in Ramstein, Germany, are equipped to serve children with severe disabilities of any type, whereas schools in some other overseas installations have no pre-established special education programs of any kind.

Overseas assignment of servicemembers with children with special educational needs requires coordination between the military branches through their Exceptional Family Member (EFM) programs and the DOD Education Activity--the office that oversees education of military dependent children in DOD schools. Each branch implements its own processes for screening military families and assigning servicemembers to locations where there are school services that can meet their families' needs. However, impediments to effective placements may strain school resources. More specifically, ineffective screenings may result in families being placed in locations where schools are not readily equipped to serve certain needs. For example, we found one case in which a school that only had programs in place for students with mild disabilities received a student with severe needs who had not been educationally screened.

Families in many of GAO's focus groups were generally satisfied with the services DOD provided their children with special needs once they received them, but they felt that the limited availability of special education and medical specialists overseas presented challenges. Some parents were concerned their children were not receiving all the services they needed, partly due to difficulties DOD schools encounter hiring and retaining special education staff, especially overseas. While the military branches provide family support services, parents in our focus groups also indicated they lacked information about obtaining special education and related medical services. DOD is taking some steps to provide better information to families, but the extent to which these efforts are helping them is unclear.

DOD's recently established Office of Special Needs (OSN) is responsible for enhancing and monitoring support for military families with special needs. OSN and the military branches have initiated efforts to improve screening and overseas assignment of military families with special needs. However, it is unclear when some of these efforts will be completed. Moreover, while OSN was established in part to enhance and monitor the military branches' support for families with special needs, it has limited enforcement authority and oversight over the branches' EFM programs. Specifically, it is limited in the extent to which it can compel the branches to comply with DOD or service-level program requirements, and it has no direct means by which to hold them accountable if they fail to do so. In addition, DOD currently lacks agencywide benchmarks and performance goals for all components of the EFM program. As a result, it cannot assess the effectiveness of the branches' EFM programs and ensure that improvements are made when needed. Without overall performance information to proactively identify emerging problem areas, some of the branches have had to conduct investigations to address problems after they have arisen.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD operates a worldwide school system to meet the educational needs of military dependents. Questions have arisen about whether DOD is meeting the special needs of some of these children, such as those with learning disabilities. In response to a mandate in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, GAO reviewed (1) how DOD provides special education services; (2) how DOD entities coordinate to assign families overseas and how schools might be affected; (3) what challenges, if any, families face in accessing DOD services for their children with special educational needs and obtaining related information; and (4) what steps, if any, DOD is taking to enhance screening and overseas assignment for families with children with special educational needs. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations, analyzed DOD documents and data, and conducted interviews with officials from multiple DOD entities, including schools. GAO also held 22 focus groups with parents of children with special needs during site visits and phone interviews at eight military installations worldwide.

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GAO recommends that the Secretary of Defense (1) ensure the military branches medically and educationally screen all school-age children before relocation overseas; (2) direct OSN to establish benchmarks and performance goals for the EFM program; and (3) direct OSN to develop and implement a process for ensuring the branches' compliance with EFM program requirements. DOD generally agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To ensure that military families are assigned to overseas installations that can readily meet their children's special educational and medical needs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the secretaries of each branch to ensure that all military dependent children of school age are medically and educationally screened in accordance with each branch's policies and that all required educational screening forms are forwarded to DODEA for educational assignment recommendations prior to families' relocations.
Closed – Implemented
DOD officials indicated that DOD is in the process of conducting a functional analysis of the military services Exceptional Family Member (EFM) Programs. As part of this analysis, new streamlined overseas medical and educational screening processes have been developed, along with standardized screening forms that will be used by all the military services prior to families' overseas relocations. DOD officials noted that these efforts will be piloted in the fall of 2013. The agency subsequently reported that DoD Instruction 1315.19 requires the Military Services to identify children of school age who have special educational needs to the appropriate DOD Education Activity (DoDEA) reviewer for educational placement recommendations.
Department of Defense To improve oversight of the military branches' programs for families with special needs, the Secretary of Defense should direct OSN to establish uniform benchmarks and performance goals for the identification/enrollment and assignment coordination components of the military branches' EFM programs. These goals can be used to determine whether EFM programs are achieving desired outcomes across DOD and identify areas for improvement. For example, such performance goals could include specific targets and benchmarks for reducing screening failures over time and reassigning families who have been sent to locations that are unable to meet their children's educational or medical needs.
Closed – Implemented
In 2012, DOD officials noted they are developing a single electronic system to collect uniform data from all three components of the four services EFM programs. According to DOD, this is the first step in developing standardized performance metrics for all components of the program. Officials noted, however, that full implementation of these metrics will take three to five years. In FY13, DOD reported that they completed the first year of an analysis of the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) that will provide uniform benchmarks and performance goals for the enrollment and assignment coordination components of the program. A separate effort developed accreditation standards for the EFMP family support component, which are being piloted by the Council on Accreditation and result in uniform benchmarks and performance goals for EFMP family support programs. The agency reported n 2014 that the analysis of the EFM program had been completed, and efforts were underway to implement its recommendations for standardization of the EFM program across the military branches. The recommendation included standardizing program performance metrics and outcomes across the branches. In 2016, DOD reported that it had piloted a survey and completed data collection at eight military installation for the EFMP Family Process and Outcomes Metrics (POM) project to standardize and evaluate outcomes data for families receiving EFMP services. In addition, the agency has developed an EFMP Data Repository to record EFMP data for recordkeeping and reporting purposes to standardize the EFMP IT Portfolio. Toward this end, DOD completed a pilot to collect a standardized data set spanning the three EFMP components, and developed targets and benchmarks across the Services. This allowed them to establish a baseline of standard data and conduct a cross-Service analysis. DOD said this will enable them to determine trends in program enrollment across the Services; Assignment Coordination, such as efforts to reduce problematic assignments; and Family Support to further enhance the experience for military families with special needs.
Department of Defense To strengthen OSN's oversight over the military branches' EFM programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct OSN to develop and implement a process to assess the branches' compliance with DOD-level EFM program policies and requirements, and to identify and report any issues related to noncompliance to senior leadership for corrective action. For example, OSN could consider conducting periodic, unannounced site visits to select military installations on a periodic basis to monitor implementation of their EFM programs.
Closed – Implemented
DOD began to revise its DOD-level EFM program guidance to assign responsibility for ensuring that the services comply with the guidance to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management. Due to a Supreme Court decision on the definition of a "family," a new draft of DoDI 1315.19 had to be submitted to DOJ for approval. Once the draft DoDI was returned to OGC in October 2014 from DOJ, DOD reviewed and prepared it for publication in the Federal Register. DOD submitted the rule to the Federal Register in December 2015 for interagency and public comment. The comment period concluded in February 2016 with over 100 public comments. As of October 2016, the agency is preparing it for issuance as a final rule. It will then create monitoring standards based on these new DoDI requirements.

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