Commentary

The Time Has Come to Empower Military Families With School Choice

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A federal change in education policy could improve military retention

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Imagine being a young, enlisted member of the U.S. armed services. You’ve volunteered to put yourself in harm’s way. You’ve committed to being assigned to whatever duty station your service requires, and you understand that the commitment also requires sacrifice on the part of your family, who will follow you from state to state, year after year.

But you may not fully have considered the enormity of the sacrifice your children must make. They, too, will face an assignment: whichever public school is closest to your new home, either on- or off-base, regardless of whether it’s the right fit.

This situation drives military family conversations around the dinner table at night. It is of paramount concern to service members. Last year, 35 percent of respondents to a Military Times survey reported that dissatisfaction with their child’s schooling options was a major factor in their decision to remain in or leave military service altogether.

Indeed, the schools attended by most children of military families don’t match the schooling options they would prefer. According to a nationally representative survey of military families that I co-authored for the nonprofit EdChoice, which works to advance school choice, although just 33 percent of military-connected respondents said they would prefer to send their child to a public school, 80 percent of military-connected children attend public schools.

Put differently, more than two-thirds would choose something other than a public school. Yet that’s overwhelmingly where their children have to go to school.

This month, Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., introduced a proposal to address this disconnect and ensure military families have a choice when it comes to where and how their children are educated. The proposal, and companion legislation introduced in the Senate by Republican Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tim Scott of South Carolina, would provide education savings accounts of between $2,500 and $4,500 annually to eligible children from military families to pay for learning options that fit their individual needs.

Instead of assigning children to district schools based on their parents’ assigned duty station, and then sending federal dollars directly to those districts, the proposal would allow military families to direct funding to any education-related service or provider.

These ESAs would allow families to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, private tutoring, and any other education service that is a good fit for their child. Unused ESA dollars could even be rolled over from year to year, following families to their next duty station.

School choice is primarily a state and local issue. However, because the federal government has a mandate to provide for the national defense, the education of military-connected children has a special place at the U.S. Department of Education. The federal government spends about $1.3 billion annually on a program known as Impact Aid, much of which goes specifically to the education of military children.

Impact Aid exists to provide additional funding for the education of military- and other federally connected children when a federal presence disrupts normal tax revenues. The purpose of Impact Aid isn’t to fund a particular type of school as a result of lost property tax revenue for districts, but to fund the education of federally connected children. So, like the GI Bill (which is also federally funded), dollars should fund the student, enabling them to choose whatever education option is the right fit.

"The schools attended by most children of military families don’t match the schooling options they would prefer."

Skeptics of transitioning the federal Impact Aid program to a system of student-centered education savings accounts argue that it will drain resources from district schools that depend on Impact Aid to support their budgets.

First, six years of experience with state-based ESA options demonstrates that program uptake is gradual: Between 1 and 3 percent of eligible students are participating in education savings account programs in the four states with fully operational ESAs, according to a recent report from the Heritage Foundation (where I serve as a policy director).

Based on those figures, senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher estimated the fiscal impact on a random sample of districts currently receiving Impact Aid funding if 1 percent, 5 percent, or 10 percent of children currently enrolled in a school in the district instead chose to use an ESA. He found that “districts would see changes to their Impact Aid funding as a total share of the district’s expenditures of no more than 0.10 percent. For heavily impacted districts—districts that have a significant number of students receiving Impact Aid—the figures are similar.”

Such a change to district revenue is well within the bounds of what schools typically experience as a result of normal fluxes in student enrollment. And while it would have a nominal effect on school revenue, the option could be life-changing for families in the armed services.

Through the Impact Aid program, the federal government has committed to supporting part of the cost of educating military-connected children. To better achieve that goal, funds should be directed by military parents themselves to whatever schooling option is the right fit, regardless of whether that’s a public or private learning option.

Reconceptualizing how we fund the education of children from military families could ensure children have access to learning options that work for them, which would have positive downstream benefits to military recruitment and retention.

The time has come to provide education choice to military families. It is not just an issue of education policy, but an issue of national security.

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