Military Children Hampered By Illinois Laws, Advocates Say
By Hannah Meisel
Moving to a new state is never easy, especially when you’re a school-aged kid. But for military families who move more frequently than most, laws in Illinois create a unique challenge — and, in some cases, a barrier to entry.
Think back to the last time you were ‘the new kid.’ Maybe it was freshman year of college, or when you started a new job or even joined a book club.
Now multiply that ‘new kid’ experience by three and factor in how awkward grade school is and you might be a little closer to knowing what it like to be a military kid.
Military families move on average three times more than most families. Dr. Cynthia Doil said that can be a big headache — especially when military children have to change high schools.
“Many of our students are concerned about whether or not a particular course, for example, will transfer and count toward graduation requirements," she said.
Doil provides assistance to military families moving on and off Scott Air Force Base, about half an hour east of St. Louis. Her job as a military education liaison is a rarity in Illinois, but in other states, people like her are an essential part of school districts, required by state law.
In many cases, the laws mandating these liaisons are part of an interstate compact - an agreement between states meant to address the many issues faced by military students.
Most of the 46 states in the compact have laws that require exceptions to be made for military children, like letting them try out for sports or activities via video. Doil and other advocates say Illinois' laws regarding military children are the weakest in the compact.
Tom White didn't want to risk his boys missing out on any essential curriculum. Last year, after retiring from the Army, he became director of the Veterans Legal Support Center at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. But instead of moving his family to Illinois, White opted to reside in Valparaiso, Ind., an hour commute to work.
"It made it really difficult to kind of line up finding a good school and also a place to live," he said. "Because those don't necessarily go hand in hand."
For his son, Carter White, 16, the changes at school haven't been all that difficult, though he does say it's a little weird to have to take class with sophomores as a junior.
Extracurricular activities are a different story. His dad said Carter is pretty good at lacrosse.
"And guess what they kind of don't play in the Midwest?" White laughed.
Carter is actually more than pretty good. Two years out, colleges are already starting to notice him. He does not play at his Valpraiso high school, but Carter was able to find a lacrosse club to join in south suburban Orland Park. That's an hour-fifteen commute across state lines to get to practice. Mostly, though, Carter takes it all in stride.
"I've moved probably eight or nine times, and every time it's to a new school," he said. "So it gets kind of the same stuff over and over again, just a new place. So it makes it a little bit easier."
But not everyone is as laid back as Carter.
As a parent, Captain William Bulis is concerned about his 10-year-old son. But Bulis also has to be concerned for the well-being of the families based with him at Naval Station Great Lakes, just north of Chicago. Adding to his worry is the expiration date for Illinois' participation in the interstate compact. If it does sunset as scheduled — in summer 2015 — Bulis said it could make Illinois even less appealing to military families.
"What that will probably do is prevent or discourage families from taking orders to Naval Station Great Lakes or the other Illinois bases, and they will stay in other states," he said.
So, why is the law in Illinois so different than the other 45 states in the compact? While many states took the recommended language for the laws and modified them only for grammatical or technical reasons, it was a tougher sell in Illinois.
Tom Holbrook was the original sponsor of the bill. He doesn't believe the law is that weak, but the former Democratic lawmaker said quelling opposition from local schools was, and continues to be, a hurdle.
"They're holding them back in their educational process and there's really no call for it," he said. "This isn't a situation of states' rights, it's right for those students and right for their education."
There are not yet plans to renew Illinois' law before it sunsets in 2015, but a spokesman from The Department of Veterans Affairs said there is still plenty of time.