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NEWS | Feb. 29, 2024

State liaisons advocate for military families throughout U.S.

By Joseph Clark DOD News

State-level policy decisions can have a truly meaningful impact on service members and their families, especially those with school-age children.   

With frequent moves and deployments that accompany a parent's military career, military children often face unique challenges throughout their academic careers that their civilian peers may not encounter.   

Children of service members, for example, change schools three times more frequently, on average, than their non-military peers due to geographic moves, according to a 2013 study on military children demographics.   

With each move, military children could face issues ranging from gaps in the curriculum from one school to the next, course placement challenges and varying graduation requirements.   

Those moves can also pose significant stressors for children as they work to establish new social connections and adjust to new school environments.   

Children of deployed parents also face added stressors that are more likely to require more frequent behavioral healthcare visits than their civilian counterparts, according to a 2020 study.   

In recognition of these unique challenges that come with military life, the Defense Department, through the Defense-State Liaison Office, engages policy and lawmakers at the state level to educate them on ways states can help ease the burdens placed on military families.   

For example, through the Defense-State Liaison Office's efforts, more than 40 states have passed legislation to adopt the Purple Star Schools program designed to recognize schools that assist military children with school transitions and develop programs that recognize the value of military service.   

State-level advocates are pushing for even more states to adopt the program.   

Earlier this month, Michelle Richart, a "regional liaison" with the Defense-State Liaison Office, testified before the Colorado House of Representatives Education Committee on how establishing the Purple Star Schools Program in the state could mitigate challenges faced by military children.   

Colorado is home to 46,403 children of the nearly 67,000 active duty, National Guard and Reserve members stationed in the state.   

"A Colorado Purple Star School is not only a badge of honor for the school and district, it is a recognition of the effort that signals to incoming families that they will be welcomed and well-supported," Richart, herself a Colorado military spouse, said in her testimony to the committee.   

Richart was joined in testifying before the committee by school liaisons from Buckley Space Force Base and the U.S. Air Force Academy, a fellow military spouse and students whose parents are stationed in the area.   

"It was a very positive experience, and the House Education Committee members were incredibly receptive to the Purple Star Schools program," Richart said after testifying.  

She said the testimony from the students themselves was especially impactful.  

"My biggest takeaway was how much lawmakers appreciated hearing directly from the high schoolers about their lived experiences as military-connected students," she said.  "It was also wonderful to see the outpouring of support from military leadership and community organizations."  

A bill to institute the Purple Star Schools Program in the state was subsequently passed unanimously in the House Education Committee. It is now headed for consideration by the Appropriations Committee and a floor vote by the full Colorado House if approved.   

Educating about the challenges military children face and the benefits of the Purple Star Schools Program is one of many priorities undertaken by Richart, who covers six states as a regional liaison.   

"I like to joke that I'm a one-woman show covering six states," she said. "There is no typical day, which is one of the things I enjoy most."  

She said her responsibilities are many and range from giving testimony at a state capitol to briefing a governor's task force on the top DOD policy priorities impacting military families stationed in the state.   

"The next day, I may connect with community leaders in South Dakota or the Department of Education in Iowa to understand their positions and explore where we can work together," Richart said. "I may spend an entire afternoon researching school open enrollment policies in Kansas or juvenile jurisdiction laws in Nebraska.  

"The dynamic nature of my job keeps me on my toes and the important mission of the work brings incredible value to my life," she said.     

Each year the Office of the Secretary of Defense, through coordination with the Military Services and National Guard Bureau identifies a list of ten top policy priorities affecting military families in the states.  

The Defense-State Liaison Office's team of eight regional liaisons, each assigned a standing list of states with whom they routinely work, educate policy and lawmakers at the state level on DOD's top policy priorities in addition to a list of emeritus/standing policy priorities that carry over year-to-year. The Purple Star Schools Program is one of those standing priorities.  

The Department's policy priorities for 2024 range from military spouse employment to anti-discrimination measures for military families.   

Additionally, education is a key theme, as the Defense-State Liaison Office's regional liaisons also inform about how flexible school enrollment policies benefit for military families, how states can support military families with special education needs, and how access to quality family child care can be expanded for military families.    

Richart believes engaging with state policymakers face-to-face is key to getting these priorities across the finish line.   

"I found it's important to travel in person and speak with leadership directly," she said.  "Not only does it build rapport and trust, but the conversations are much different in person than virtually."  

She added that being a Midwest native, a military spouse and former Army legal assistance attorney also comes in handy.   

"Those personal and professional experiences allow me to appreciate the challenges military families face and relate to the nuances of the states in my region," she said.   

Information about the Defense-State Liaison Office, the regional liaisons, and DOD's top policy priorities for states for 2024 can be found at https://statepolicy.militaryonesource.mil.