Military families move often, which means picking new schools with each PCS. Choosing between public, private, and DODEA schools can be difficult. We take a look at the different options and factors to help you make the best decision for you.
Basics: What Are Public, Private, And DODEA Schools?
There are three types of schools available to military families: public, private and DODEA schools.
Public schools are funded and overseen by the local government. This is often the city, town, county or other local education cooperate. These are funded through local tax payer dollars, as well as state and federal funding. Public schools are required to adhere to state learning standards and each state can set their own. Progress is tracked using a variety of benchmarking tests and one year-end standard based measure.
Private schools can be secular or religious in nature. Families enrolling children in private schools will typically need pay an application fee, monthly tuition and supply fees. Religious schools include special theological instruction as part of their curriculum. Secular schools will not teach religion, but may adhere to a set educational philosophy – Montessori, Waldorf, IB, etc.
DODEA schools are often called base schools or DOD schools. These are federally funded schools just for military children who meet particular requirements, such as living on base. These schools are only located at specific bases east of the Mississippi River and at overseas duty stations. While there may be physical school buildings located on other US military bases, they are not DODEA schools and are instead run by the local public school district.
What Do You Have To Research Before You Pick A School?
Honestly, this will depend based on where you are being stationed. So, let’s break it down based on general locations:
- Bases near big cities (think: San Diego, DC, NYC) – if your duty station is going to be near a big city, then you might want to consider commute radius first and then look at schools within your ideal commute distance
- More rural locations (think: Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg, MCAS Yuma): think about commute, house size/cost and school reputation; you might be willing to drive longer in less congested traffic for a better school
- OCONUS (think: duty stations in Japan, Europe): you will be, by default, given the option of DODEA schools, but might also choose local national schools or private schools
- OCONUS but still US (think: Alaska, Hawaii): you’ll be looking at either local public or private schools
No matter what factors are at play, you should always consider:
- School testing data: use the state’s published school report cards, typically found via an internet search for “STATE + School Report Cards”; fill in the state where you are looking
- Other school data: look at school teacher retention, experience and provisional licensure; none of these factors are inherently negative either way, but having an experienced staff who have been in the school for several years indicates that teachers are happy working (and teaching) in this district
- School social media and website: look for a regularly updated social media feed that is student focused; websites should be easy to navigate and locate essential information quickly
- Local parents: consider what other parents are saying, but take it with a grain of salt – everyone’s experience is different and will likely not reflect your own
For Parents: How Do I Choose Between Public, Private, and DODEA Schools?
Sometimes, you might not have a great selection of choice, quite frankly. Private schools will always be an option, provided you can pay the tuition, but your family will likely have either DODEA or public schools as the other choice.
If you are living in Okinawa, for example, you will be choosing between either the DODEA school your family is zoned for, the local national Japanese-language school or one of the private religious schools open to Americans.
In fact, it is rare for families to truly get the choice of all three school options in one place.
Students who live on-base east of the Mississippi River will be able to choose between DODEA schools or private schools, but not local public schools. Students living off base in the US, including Hawaii and Alaska, will be choosing between local public schools or private schools. Even students who live near US bases with DODEA schools, but who are located off base, will not be able to access the on-base schools.
Consider which option speak to your family most.
- Has your child previously been in DODEA schools?
- Do you prefer a private religious education?
- Does your child require specialized instruction due to an IEP?
- How do the proficiency scores compare between the options available to your family?
- Are you able to afford the tuition at private schools?
- What are the opinions of other military families who have children enrolled at schools you are considering?
For Students: How Do I Know What School Is Right For Me?
As students age, it is important to include them in decision making around schools. Ask your child what is important to them:
- drama and the arts
- extracurricular clubs
- focused instruction – arts, sciences, humanities
- educational philosophy – college prep, IB
- available courses – vocational instruction, AP, honors
Find out their priorities and future goals. Where they attend school, especially high school, can have a lasting impact.
What Is It Like to Attend a DODEA School?
DODEA, Department of Defense Education Activity, schools are only available on specific military installations, not all of them. In the US, generally, this is restricted to locations east of the Mississippi. However, not all eastern bases or installations will have DODEA schools. These are grouped under DODEA Americas.
Schools are available on these US Bases:
- Camp Lejeune, North Carolina
- Fort Bragg, North Carolina
- MCB Quantico, Virginia
- Dahlgren, Virginia
- Puerto Rico
- West Point, New York
- Fort Benning, Georgia
- Fort Stewart, Georgia
- Fort Campbell, Kentucky
- Fort Knox, Kentucky
- Maxwell AFB, Alabama
- MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina
Almost all overseas locations, excepting Hawaii and Alaska, have DODEA schools. This used to be called Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DODDS). Now, these schools are grouped by region into DODEA Europe and DODEA Pacific.
You’ll find DODEA schools in these OCONUS locations:
- DODEA Europe:
- United Kingdom
- DODEA Pacific
- Okinawa, Japan
- Japan (mainland)
- South Korea
Your child’s ability to attend a DODEA school, in the US or OCONUS, relies on several factors. First, your family must be active duty. In the US, your family must also reside in base housing. Overseas, all children of military personnel are able to attend DODEA schools, whether they live on or off base.
If there are multiple schools in a level, for example several elementary schools, your child’s school will depend on where you live. There may be options to switch schools based on educational need. This would apply if your child needs services that your zoned school does not provide, but which another school does offer.
Overseas, DOD civilian employees may be able to attend DOD schools as well. However, this could be restricted on a space-available basis. Children of military service members are given priority over civilian employees’ children. Additionally, there may be tuition required for children of civilian employees.
DODEA students are assessed on their progress annually, just like students in traditional public schools. They use a combination of standardized testing, including the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the PSAT and the SAT. NAEP also provides the “Nation’s Report Card”, sharing insights into schools around the country.
Cost Of Private, Public, and DODEA Schools
Two of these types of schools require no specific cost.
Public schools are paid for through local, state and federal funding via taxes. DODEA schools are funded through the Department of Defense, as a benefit for the children of military members.
Private schools, on the other hand, do come at a cost. This cost does vary based on your specific location and the type of private school you are considering. Costs can range from under $5,000 per year to over $50,000 per year. This is a very wide range in costs.
Other Considerations Before Making the Choice
What you consider when choosing a school is deeply personal to each family. The school that is right for your family will not be right for other families in similar circumstances. You might think about:
- Is this a Purple Star school?
- Does this school have a large military population?
- Can they support my family with flexible options during deployments or when we PCS?
- Is there an MFLC available?
- What special education options are available?
- Does the athletic program, arts program or other extra curricular programs meet my child’s needs?
- Did I get a warm feeling when I first contacted this school?
Free Resources to Learn More
There are many free resources available to military families seeking guidance and support when choosing a school:
- School Liaison Officers: located at each military base, SLOs can help you understand the schools available, access enrollment paperwork and provide a warm welcome for your family; they also coordinate military volunteer efforts at local public and DODEA schools
- EFMP: consultants can help you coordinating between your child’s IEP or 504 Plan and the schools in the region; they can also provide some support with IEP or 504 advocacy; services may vary by branch and location
- MilitaryOneSource: this military-connected resource provides information, guides and support for families considering their options
Meg Flanagan is a teacher, blogger and military spouse. She owns Meg Flanagan Education Solutions, an education advocacy service dedicated to serving families on the K-12 journey. You can find Meg on Facebook. Meg is also available as a freelance writer and personal education advocate!