Lawmaker to stump for virtual school enlistees

COLUMBIA --- Students who attend computer-based virtual schools across the country are given second-class status when they try to join the military, and U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson said Wednesday that he will work to get the policy changed.

"We are dealing with new technology," the South Carolina Republican said after meeting with an 18-year-old student who wants to join the Air Force but has encountered difficulties in his attempt to enlist. "We just need to keep adapting."

Wilson, who heads the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, said he thinks "thousands" of students nationwide might be affected by the policy, which places students who graduate from traditional schools ahead of those with home-school or other alternative credentials.

At a time when the nation is at war, the Pentagon should be seeking students who meet the military's high-tech needs, not making it harder on them, Wilson argued.

He spoke after meeting with Jared Dennis of Lexington, who is to graduate in June from Connections Academy, one of South Carolina's five virtual charter schools.

Dennis said he was devastated when he sought out an Air Force recruiter and was told his attendance at a virtual school put him in a "Tier 2" status behind others. He was advised that he could go forward with enlisting only after he had attended about 15 hours of college-level classes.

"It was heartbreaking to say the least," said Dennis, who wants to become a military policeman.

His mother, Alice, said she sought the virtual charter school after her son was barred from returning to his public school because of a weapons violation.

"He accidentally left a pocket knife in his jacket," she said. They looked for an alternative where her son could continue with honors-level classes.

Wilson said he understands the value the military can have in a person's life, given his 31 years in the Army National Guard and the fact that four of his sons have served.

Wilson said he intends to put language in the Pentagon's budget bill next week.

"I want young people like Jared to serve," he said.

South Carolina state Superintendent Mick Zais said Connections Academy is fully accredited by the state and that students must pass all tests required of traditional students.

"I want to attest to the rigor and the quality of the education that is offered by today's online, virtual cyber schools," said Zais, a retired one-star Army general.

He said the policy might have made sense "15 years ago when a lot of fly-by-night companies were offering fake degrees," but not when the virtual schools are being held to toughened standards.

Maj. Rosaire Bushey, a spokesman for the Air Force's Air Education and Training Command in San Antonio, said the Pentagon requires the service to put traditional high school students in a "Tier 1" status, while those who have a GED, home-school certificate or attend a virtual school in "Tier 2."

"Of the 27,965 we will take in, only 1 percent can be in the Tier 2 status," Bushey said.

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