We need not rely on thought experiments in order to visualize a more equitable system of education in the United States. There is the school system managed by the Department of Defense, a global pre-kindergarten to 12th grade education system serving over 73,000 students. It is, in effect, the nation’s 45th largest school district.
Since President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, the nation’s armed forces have progressed from being one of the most segregated to being one of the best-integrated areas of American society. This is not to say that there are not racists in the military, there are, of course, but the absence of systematic racism in the armed forces is exemplary for the rest of our society and has a profound effect on educational opportunities for the children of African-American military families.
There are 1.3 million active duty military personal, of whom 17 percent are Black or African-American, a slightly larger percentage than in the general population. Nineteen percent (206,227) of enlisted personnel are Black as are nine percent (21,921) of officers (2014). We can assume, then, that by and large, decisions in the military, including decisions about the schools of the Department of Defense, are most likely to be taken by White, non-Hispanics. Very few (less than one percent) of military personnel are without a high school diploma or GED. Ninety-two percent of enlisted personnel have a high school diploma or equivalent; six percent have Bachelor’s degrees; 1 percent have more advanced educations. Among officers, the distribution of educational attainment is reversed: 7 percent officers have only a high school diploma or equivalent; 43 percent have Bachelor’s degrees and 41 percent have more advanced educational qualifications.
More than a third (38 percent) of military personnel are married with children, while just 6 percent are single with children. The approximate average annual income of enlisted personnel is $40,400, that of officers $81,000, which gives an average annual income for African-American military personnel of $44,300. In sum, the typical African-American member of the military is more likely to have completed secondary school, but less likely to have postsecondary degrees, has a higher individual income and if a parent is more likely to be married than a member of the general African-American population.
If we look at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results for the key eighth grade reading indicator, incomplete as they are for kids in special ed, we find that over-all, the Department of Defense schools outcomes are considerably better than those for public schools in general, with less than half the percentage of students at the Below Basic level (10 percent v. 25 percent) and 50 percent more at the proficient and above level (47 percent v. 32 percent). Disaggregating these results by race, we find that among White, non-Hispanic, students, the Department of Defense schools again have better, if less dramatic, outcomes: 52 percent v. 42 percent testing at proficient or above; nine percent v. 16 percent testing at below basic. However, the picture for Black students is dramatic, with less than a quarter of those that in the general population test at the below basic level (10 percent v. 42 percent), between two and three times as many at the proficient and above level (38 percent v. 15 percent). Interestingly, the Department of Defense schools results for Black students are approximately the same as those for White, non-Hispanic, students in the nation’s public schools.
The overall difference, then, between the outcomes for eighth grade reading between the Department of Defense schools and the nation’s public schools in general is the strikingly superior performance of the Department of Defense schools in regard to their Black students. To what should this be attributed? If we look at the adult education and income data, there does not seem to be an obvious causal factor. Parental education differences are pretty much a wash: Black military adults are less likely to have quit school before receiving a diploma, but also less likely to have a Bachelor’s degree or above than other African-Americans. African-American military personnel have higher individual incomes and slightly higher family incomes than the general African-American population (perhaps because all are, by definition, employed).
However, while Black students in Department of Defense schools score at the proficient or above level 38 percent of the time, Black students ineligible for the National Lunch Program (that is, with middle class incomes) in all national public schools do so just 26 percent of the time, therefore family income explains only part of the difference. Nineteen percent of Black students, nationally, who respond to NAEP indicating that they live in home with a father, are at the proficient or above level, compared to 12 percent who give no response. (This is less of a difference than that for White, non-Hispanic, students, where the percentages are 46 percent and 32 percent.) As this probably correlates with income, again it does not seem to explain the difference between the outcomes of Department of Defense and other public schools.
This leaves us with what is usually called “school culture.” In other words, it is probable that the Department of Defense schools partake of the general, official, anti-racist culture of the military. They give Black and White students equal educational opportunities, equal access to educational resources, and given those, race ceases to be a determining factor in educational achievement. There is a lesson there for America’s non-military traditional districts and other school operators.