A young girl clings to her father at a 2017 homecoming of the USS Carl Vinson in Coronado. Photo by Chris Stone

The military community is intrinsic to the fabric of San Diego. As one of the largest military installations in the country with over 115,000 active-duty service members, San Diego is home to a large number of military-connected children who attend school in the region.

Students from military families face unique challenges in their education stemming from frequent relocations, parental deployments and school transitions. As a result, they need additional resources to thrive in school and reach their full potential.

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At the San Diego Unified School District, we have partnered with organizations to hire dedicated Military Family Life counselors who understand the unique needs of military-connected students and are equipped to address their emotional and social well-being.

Additionally, in partnership with Military School Liaison officers, the district offers professional development opportunities for teachers and school staff. By increasing awareness about the barriers, rights and needs of military children, these initiatives foster a more inclusive and supportive educational environment.

San Diego Unified also holds annual military resource fairs to help new military families connect with support and services available within the district and in the larger region. From offering streamlined enrollment to celebrating the Month of the Military Child with resources and activities that recognize our military families, San Diego Unified strives to ensure our military students feel welcomed and supported at school.

San Diego Unified has been recognized by the state of California as a leader in supporting military students. Nineteen SDUSD schools have received the California Purple Star Designation in recognition of going above and beyond to meet the needs of military families.

Providing dedicated resources to support military families and their children at school is possible due to a federal program known as Impact Aid.

The Impact Aid program was established in 1950 to provide funding to school districts serving military populations in order to offset the lost property tax revenue from federal land and the additional costs associated with serving military students.

Despite its essential purpose, the Impact Aid program has been chronically underfunded since 1969. In 2020, San Diego Unified received only 16% of the Impact Aid Basic Support payment it would be eligible for if the program was fully funded.

In recognition of the challenge of scaling services to a large number of students, the Impact Aid formula provides an adjustment for school communities that serve over 5,000 military students and have a total student population over 100,000.

As the second-largest school district in California and home to one of the largest military populations in the nation, San Diego Unified has qualified for this adjustment for many years.

However, like other urban school districts across California, San Diego Unified has experienced declining enrollment, and its total student population has dropped below 100,000 even though we continue to serve over 7,500 military families.

As a result, the district is poised to lose $2 million in Impact Aid funding that supports service for our military families. This $2 million cut, coupled with inadequate federal funding for Impact Aid overall, leaves the district in the precarious position of meeting the educational needs of its military-connected children without adequate federal support.

Without a change in the federal Impact Aid program, critical services for military students are at risk. We are calling on our federal representatives to ensure that military families in San Diego retain access to critical services at school.

Congresswoman Sara Jacobs has stepped up for military families in San Diego and worked tirelessly in the House of Representatives to lead the fight against this cut to funding for military families at San Diego Unified with support from Representatives Juan Vargas, Scott Peters and Mike Levin.

In the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein has demonstrated strong leadership by raising awareness of this issue and the risk it poses for thousands of military families in California.

Their efforts in Congress are supported by leaders in the San Diego community and the state, including state schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond, bipartisan representatives in the California Senate and Assembly, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, county Supervisor Joel Anderson, the San Diego Military Family Collaborative and the San Diego Military Advisory Council.

Together, this coalition is fighting to ensure military families retain access to the educational support they need to thrive in school. Our community must continue to speak out and urge Congress to take decisive action to protect critical services for military families in one of the largest populations of active duty military personnel in the nation.

Sabrina Bazzo is president of the San Diego Unified school board. Trustee Richard Barrera is a school board member. And Mark Balmert is president and CEO of the San Diego Military Advisory Council.