U.S. Military Considers Eliminating Kwajalein Education Program For Marshallese Kids

30 year old program provides schooling for children from Ebeye

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, July 5, 2016) – A 30-year-old education program for Marshall Islanders at the United States Army base in the Marshall Islands could lose its funding as a result of a review now ongoing by the Army’s Installation Management Command.

Since 1987, the Army command at Kwajalein has funded the “Ri-Katak” (Marshallese student) program, which since inception has provided opportunity for dozens of children resident on Ebeye Island to attend Army-run elementary and high schools on neighboring Kwajalein Island.

“It’s a great program and I would hate to see it go away,” Charles Paul, the former Marshall Islands ambassador to the United States, said Friday. Paul was one of four Marshallese students from Ebeye who were selected to begin studying in kindergarten to launch the program at the Kwajalein Army base in 1987.

The program started with four Ebeye students beginning in kindergarten, and then continuing through the Kwajalein school system to high school graduation. It was accepted up to five students per year but usually has three new students annually starting in kindergarten.

Last school year saw 44 Ebeye students attending the Army-run schools at Kwajalein through the Ri-Katak program. It costs the Army about $600,000 a year, funding that comes out of the U.S. Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll or USAG-KA budget.

“We don’t expect anything to change for the upcoming school year,” Major Holly Maness, USAG-KA’s director of Host Nation Activities, said Friday. “We have not been directed to discontinue funding yet and are moving forward with planning for next school year.”

But a currently ongoing investigation by the Army’s Installation Management Command could result in program funding being halted in the future. “This doesn’t mean funding will end in the near future, but it’s at risk,” she said.

The Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command decades-long management of the Kwajalein base ended in 2013, when oversight was shifted to the Army’s Installation Management Command or IMCOM, triggering a review of all operations at the missile testing range in the Marshall Islands, said Maness.

The transition to IMCOM is still ongoing, she said. “As part of the transition, IMCOM looked through everything,” she said. The USAG-KA command was asked by IMCOM how it funded the Ri-Katak program. “Since inception in 1987, we’ve funded it out of our budget,” Maness said. But IMCOM officials said this couldn’t be done. This prompted a request for a legal opinion regarding funding of the program, which led to a directive for the program and its funding to be investigated — a development that is now ongoing.

“We know it’s a valuable program,” Maness said, noting that the USAG-KA command has advocated for it continuing. USAG-KA commander Col. Michael Larsen briefed Marshall Islands leaders earlier this year on the Ri-Katak program funding being at risk. Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk expressed concern about losing the educational program for Marshallese during annual defense talks with U.S. officials in June.

“The program has been one of the highlights of our bilateral relationship with the U.S.,” said Paul, who after stepping down from the ambassador post in April last year has been working with the World Bank in Washington. “It is a great example of how the two communities — Kwajalein and Ebeye — benefit from one another through mutual exchange of culture and knowledge. It would be a major setback if the funding would be cutoff and the school would be forced to eliminate the Ri-Katak program.”

In contrast to the American standard of education provided at Kwajalein schools, public elementary and middle schools on Ebeye Island routinely show the lowest student academic performance in the nation.

The Army estimates it costs $10,500 cost per elementary student and $16,300 per high school student. The families of the Ebeye students contribute a small amount to this cost, from $350 to $450 per year depending on grade level.

The Ri-Katak program started the year after a treaty known as the Compact of Free Association came into effect between the Marshall Islands and the United States, which provided substantial funding to the Marshall Islands government for development and rental payments to landowners for use of Kwajalein as well as defense authority over the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean territory controlled by the Marshall Islands. The program was started to improve relations between the American military community at Kwajalein and the 10,000 Marshall Islanders who lived on Ebeye, an island often called the slum of the Pacific. Establishment of the program followed numerous Kwajalein landowner-led protests at the missile range in the early- and mid-1980s seeking higher rental payments and improved living conditions on Ebeye.

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years and seeing Marshall Islands leaders graduate from the program, doing wonderful things for the Marshall Islands,” Maness said. “We’ve relayed this (up to higher levels of the Army). Absolutely, USAG-KA wants to keep funding the program.”

But at this point, the decision on whether to continue funding this program is out of the hands of the USAG-KA command even as it prepares for three new kindergarten students to join over 40 continuing Ebeye Marshallese students attending Kwajalein schools this August for the start of the 2016-17 school year.

Marianas Variety
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This article is misleading as to the cost to the US. I don't believe educating the Marshallese students is costing the US $10500 to $16300 per student per year. That is not true. What consumables do those students consume that is beyond the fees paid for by the families? The cost of the educational environment and salaries of educators remains the same regardless if Marshallese are in the classroom or not. The school is there for the US children and there are no US students unable to attend school because Marshallese are taking up their seats. The school and teachers will be there if the Marshallese students are there or not. Costs remain the same. Also, the article was unfair to those very few families who scrape and save to pay the annual fees. What these families pay is a very high per cent age of their annual salaries. It is like 5 to 10 % of their minimal salaries. Then, to say that Ebeye Public Schools rate lowest in the Republic without any discussion is also in appropriate. It sounds like the US is saving 45 students per year from a failing school system. Maybe but if every year the school on Kwaj is taking the top 4 or brightest kindergarteners, is it possible that not having those top 45 students participatee the test scores are going to be much lower. I understand that there is a question about how the funding for the school on Kwaj is being paid for but that taking the amount paid to teachers and administrators divided by number of students attending is nota true cost per student. The total expenditure is going to be the same regardless if there are 18 or 20 students per class. I think the media should be looking at the whole picture and reporting so that those reviewing the facts are understanding the whole picture but not what it appears.

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