U.S. Schools with the Best Technology…and Everything Else


Ever wondered about this?  I don’t know what got me thinking about it, really, but I started wondering about technology in Department of Defense schools.  Maybe it’s because it’s Labor Day weekend and I always associate Labor Day with Memorial Day (sort of an alpha and omega thing).  And of course, Memorial Day with the military.  So I just thought I would do a little poking around…I hadn’t really thought about this before.

It turns out that Department of Defense Education Activity (the full name!) schools are, as a group, probably the best funded and best outfitted public schools that we have.  There are 194 DODEA schools serving over 93,000 students worldwide.  And DODEA schools are way ahead of regular public K12 schools in the US when it comes to technology implementation.

When DODEA kids went back to school in the fall of 2011, many of them received laptops or e-readers.  In June of 2011, DODEA received $397M in funding for school upgrades [5].  That was only the first installation of a $3.7B plan to modernize 134 of those 194 schools through 2016.  That’s “B” as in BILLION.  For 134 schools that works out to an average of $27.6M per school.  That is, in short, a lot of dough.  Many of these upgrades are to the physical structures, but also include modernization efforts for the internet, individual laptops, tablets for special education students, more virtual classes, and even the installation of more modern furniture that encourages student collaboration [2, 4].  The approval of this $3.7B raises the per student spending for DODEA from $51,000 annually in 2011 to $81,000 annually in 2016 [1].

If you haven’t figured it out by now, DODEA schools are funded a little bit differently than the schools in your neighborhood and mine.  DODEA schools are funded by the Department of Defense; 100% of their funding is federal.  Quite unlike our neighborhood public schools that are funded through a combination of federal, state and local monies, typically taxes.  The average per student spending for regular public schools in the US was $10,499 in 2009 (most recently available census data; Sparks, 2011).  This was up by 2.3% from 2008 and the increase is attributed mostly to the federal stimulus programs.

I think that’s a pretty big gap, don’t you?  The DODEA spends between five and eight times as much per student than regular public schools for what is still considered to be a “public” education.  And some of the problems being upgraded are, as Tritten reports “not a safety risk but do mean some schools get by with electrical systems that are inadequate, must open windows for fresh air, and have to live with odorous restrooms [5].  I wonder what some of the teachers who work at inner-city schools in D.C. and Chicago would say to that.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think the teachers and 93,000 kids at DODEA schools don’t deserve to have all of the updated technologies and modernized, clean, safe schools.  I just think that the other 49.8M kids who are going back to regular public schools this fall deserve the same advantages.  After all, those 49.8M make up 99.8% of the kids we, as a society, are responsible for educating.  I went into this research project expecting to find disparity; frankly, I didn’t expect to find this much.

[1] Coburn (2011). Coburn Amendment 1369 – Provide Funding for Students and Local Schools by closing unnecessary Defense Department schools.

[2] Sanchez (2011). DOD Schools engage students with technology.

[3] Sparks (2011).  Census Bureau: Schools spending $10,499 per pupil.

[4] Svan (2012).  Students at DODEA schools returning to changes, challenges.

[5] Tritten (2011). DODEA gets $397 million for improvements at 9 schools in U.S., Europe.

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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15 Responses to U.S. Schools with the Best Technology…and Everything Else

  1. fran says:

    Hmmmm. I wonder what expenses are included in that $81,000 per pupil expenditure. DODEA teachers are provided with transportation to and from their US home every other year, housing while employed (which is frequently off base), transportation of all household goods/cars/etc – all that plus salaries that are commensurate with stateside salaries and contributions to a pension fund.

  2. ArmyStrong says:

    Fran, make sure you have all of your facts straight. Not ALL DoDEA teachers receive those benefits. Those teachers who work overseas and teach in the DODDS sector receive these benefits. Those of us who teach stateside (DDESS) do not. Most of us live off base and pay for our own homes, provide our own transportation to work and spend a great deal of our own money on our students. We also have to worry whether or not we are going to get paid each and every time the government can’t come to an agreement on the budget. It’s lots of fun to receive an email that basically tells us that we WILL show up for work and they will pay us when they can. Wonder if that will work with the electric company?

  3. karen mahon says:

    Army Strong, that’s really interesting…sounds like DODEA teachers are subject to the same “surprise” cuts as regular public school teachers, just based on a different funding mechanism. I haven’t been able to find a line-item accounting of the per-student expenditures at DODEA, so I wonder what accounts for the bulk of the difference.

    Also, I was reading an article today that said that the US spends the most per student in the world, and that is based on the $10K and change number I cited above. I wonder if it’s possible that the DODEA has the highest per student expenditure for public schools in the world?!? Kind of seems like you shouldn’t have to spend your own money then, Army Strong, doesn’t it?

  4. fran says:

    Army Strong, thanks for the information separating DOD schools out of the country and stateside. I was unaware that there were local bases with their own schools – I had always heard that these schools were run by the local public schools. Where are these schools and how many are there?
    Having worked in public schools and DOD schools out of the country, I know that good teachers are always spending their own monies and lots of extra time. I always thought of it as dedication. You always have the option of working for the Electric Company.

  5. ArmyStrong says:

    Karen, I would also love to see a line-item accounting for per pupil expenditures. We are very blessed to have some wonderful perks. We have SMART Interactive Whiteboards in every classroom along with document cameras. The high school on our post has a laptop for every student (that program has a few things that needs to improve). On the other hand, because of the way the money is allocated, there are certain times of the year when we run out of money for necessities like paper towels and hand sanitizer. It gets very frustrating and makes no sense to me.

    Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely LOVE my job (educational technologist) and feel so blessed to be able to work with the children of those who are serving our country. However, there are things that need to be changed. We will frequently receive shipments of equipment that we didn’t ask for and don’t need (i.e. 30 large Lexmark printers). No one bothered to ask us if we needed or wanted these. By the way, we did not receive replacement cartridges for these printers. We also had large flat screen tvs delivered for every classroom…really. We did NOT need those. Are they nice. Yes. Necessary, no. We could use the SMARTBoards if we needed to show a video. Our entire staff agreed that we would rather have used the money on something that would’ve directly impacted the students. Again, we felt we had no voice.

    Finally, DoDEA schools are often misunderstood. Folks hear little snippets of news reports or have a friend of a friend who went to school at Fort Bragg or Fort Benning. Until you have had an affiliation with the Department of Defense schools for an extended period of time, it is difficult to truly understand the in’s and out’s of the system. We had a principal from outside the DoDEA system come in three years ago and she is just now becoming comfortable with the way things work. It is it’s own little world. That’s a good thing in that everyone understands each other…the deployment, the PCSing (moving from post to post), the extended vacations when mom or dad come home from a long deployment, etc. I feel like I’m rambling and I could go on all day…

    Fran, all of the DDESS schools are located in the Eastern United States. We’re divided into five districts. There’s the Georgia/Alabama District. The Kentucky District, The North Carolina District, The New York, Virginia, Puerto Rico District and the South Carolina, Fort Stewart, Cuba District. The rest of the bases west of the Mississippi are part of the local schools. Here’s a link for more information about our schools: http://www.dodea.edu/Americas/index.cfm.

    • karen mahon says:

      That’s all really interesting info, and thanks for sharing it with us. I’ve been around federal money long enough to know how weird the different buckets of money are and how oftentimes the allocations make absolutely no sense. Sadly, I’m not really surprised that you would all get flat screens but run out of hand sanitizer. It’s amazing how often the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and how that’s tolerated.

      I’m so glad you shared all of this because it really speaks to the fact that just because there is MORE money being thrown at a situation, that doesn’t necessarily mean the situation ends up more functional or with better outcomes. I am still VERY curious about how the money is being spent (maybe even more so after this conversation!) and will continue to hunt and report back if I stumble across something.

    • fran says:

      Thank you Army Strong. I had already looked up info on the government schools that are stateside and saw their locations. Since I now live west of the Mississippi, I did know that kids on bases here attend public schools.

      Your list of mismanagement and/or misuse of funds is no different than that in public schools. Little accountability on many levels is the culprit, I imagine. Thirty eight years in the game was enough for me and working directly with kids fulfilled my dream since second grade and now I say “it’s a good time to be retired!”

  6. Lorri Vallone says:

    These statistics are grossly exaggerated, and do not take into account the many other programs paid for out of DODEA funds, such as the Family Advocacy Program. In addition, DODEA spends money to educate children who do not attend DODEA schools, but must pay tuition to a local private or international school because there are no other adequate schools nearby. Add to that the cost of transportation for students in foreign communities, maintaining US standards programs, such as sports, Model UN, Model Senate, AVID, Speech and Debate, and much,much more. Our students must attend these events in far locations, which costs money. The grants given to upgrade technology and infrastructure were desperately needed, as many of our overseas schools were substandard; some even using old military facilities (WW2) that were not built to be schools. Our internet needs vary by country, and are costly because of our locations. The direct pupil expenditure is about $13,500, which is very good, no doubt, but nowhere near what is claimed in this article. Our teachers’ pay is based on an average of the 100 top school districts in the USA. In addition, we do receive a housing allowance, because we must live overseas, which would be cost prohibitive, and we also need to maintain homes in the US for retirement, or we would not have a place to go when we leave our jobs overseas. Transportation costs for our household goods to be sent to our duty location are also added into that big pot of money. Technology in our schools is very good compared to some schools in the States, and average compared to others. There is so much more I could add, but I think this is long enough.

  7. karen mahon says:

    Thanks for commenting, Lorri. I don’t think there’s any question that there are associated costs with DODEA schools that public schools stateside don’t incur, and you gave lots of good examples. So let’s agree that there are costs associated with special circumstances that cannot be avoided, such as tuition for kids who attend non-DODEA schools locally.

    But to be fair, there are a lot of perks for teachers that you cited as well: teachers’ salaries are the average of the top 100 schools; a housing allowance that lets you maintain two homes; expenses to move household goods, etc. My belief is that teachers in the DODEA system regard those as reasonable incentives to take the jobs overseas. And maybe they are; maybe they are even necessary to get people to take the jobs at all.

    My point isn’t that DODEA teachers are somehow living in the lap of luxury, because I realized that’s not true. My point is more that it sometimes seems, in our society, that we value DODEA schools and the education of military kids more than we value our own neighborhood public schools and kids here in the US. The military kids absolutely deserve a great education. And so do all of our kids here at home. And yet the advocates for these two groups of kids tend to be very different people. Heck some of the same people advocating for DODEA schools are the same people who think the Department of Education should be eliminated. I’m not interested in taking anything away from DODEA schools. I would just like to see us fix the way the public education system is funded here at home.

  8. Jan Broadfoot says:

    I f?ound the above discussion quite interesting. Are IPADS allowed in DODEA ?

    • karen mahon says:

      Yes, Jan. But like regular public schools, not all DODEA schools have iPads. What I have been seeing is that when a given DODEA school gets approval for a technology upgrade, iPads are often part of a more extensive package of updates.

  9. Dan says:

    Wait a second…there are two entities at work here. There is the umbrella organization DoDEA which is broken up into two major branches: domestic and abroad (actually I think abroad is subdivided into two more branches). Check the wiki out for more info:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Department_of_Defense_Education_Activity

    194 schools total, but only 70 of them are actually local to the United States(approx 36% of the system). The other 124 schools are in places like Europe and the pacific islands. It’s not fair to take an overall average of the cost and compare it domestically, especially when the US dollar is weaker in some places overseas (i.e. it takes more of our US dollars in places like Germany and Britain for some expenditures than compared to stateside) . I’m sure the domestic cost is a much lower average (though I’m sure it’s still higher than our public schools student avg.) I’d be interested to see how the cost per student is calculated as well.

    Does anyone know the domestic military per student average? Does anyone know how cost per student is calculated for students in the military vs. here? These things need to be taken into consideration. I don’t think this part of the military should be cut, especially the overseas portion. I mean, of course it’s going to cost more per student overseas….but these families deserve an american style curriculum if they want it.

    I’m skeptical of the averages jumping from $51,000 to $81,000 in 4 years…is this tied to the construction/rehab plans? Again, this begs the question, how is cost per student calculated? Do the construction/rehab costs get counted against the military student? It sounds like this is what’s being done with these military numbers but I don’t believe construction costs get counted against students in our local school systems…then again I just don’t know how it’s calculated. We have to make sure we’re comparing apples to apples here when we’re crunching the numbers is what I’m trying to say.

    Another question: Are there teacher’s unions within the DoDEA?

    Thanks for the article and summary of resources!

    • karen mahon says:

      Hi Dan- You raise a lot of good points and thanks for commenting. I was already aware that the entire DODEA is divided into subcomponents. But I couldn’t find any more information about how expenditures are itemized. I agree that we should compare apples-to-apples…the trouble is the lack of clear information. Perhaps it is available and I just wasn’t able to find it. If anyone can share additional data, that would be great.

      • Dan says:

        Yeah sorry Karen I was mostly saying “wait a second” to myself because I was uder the impression from all the reporting I’ve heard that this was simply a domestic spending issue. Kind of misleading on the part of Coburn if you ask me…then again, I simply don’t know the answers to a lot of those questions. So I echo the call for knowledgable folks to chime in!

        Ok so I did some quick reasearch and number crunching:
        You can find the enrollment numbers here:
        As of 11/9/2012 there are 27,512 students enrolled in the domestic program

        The 2013 budget can be found here:

        Click to access DoDDE_OP-5.pdf

        If you skip to page 18 you can find a line item for DDESS (A.1.5) which is $550,731 thousands or $550,731,000 total

        If you do a quick average (550731000/27512) that comes to roughly $20,000 per student. Still greater than the roughly $11,000 that will be spent per student for the current school year:
        (notice the blurb at the bottom, 50 million student and 571 billion dollars…again a rough estimate)

        Again my own calcs are rough, but you can see that the domestic military expenditure is far less than what’s being conveyed by Coburn and the media.

        Even if you take the whole budget total for all of DoDEA for 2013 (link above) and divide it by the enrollment numbers for the entire program (domestic and abroad) it still comes out to only $32,000; still much lower than what’s being reported…

        So I assume I’m missing some other monies….the question is what are these other monies which are inflating the average, and are they legit?

        But the question still remains, is the roughly $10,000 extra per military student (domestic) justified?

        Looks like the student:teacher classroom ratios are bookended at no less than 18:1 and no more than 24:1 (see goal 2 page 33 of the budget)…how does that compare to our national average?

        It’s surprising how easy and accesbile this info is…how did we live without Google!?!?!

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