The Trump administration may shift the focus of its school-choice agenda to a group of students that the federal government has a special responsibility for: children connected to the military.
Creating education savings accounts for the children of military personnel has support among some conservatives. But some advocates for military families have been cautious about embracing the idea.
Still, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a recent interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that there’s clearly an appetite among military families for more choice.
“I know for a fact that for more than a third of active-duty military families that have school-age children, their decisions where they go, or where they don’t go, or whether they continue to serve, hinge very heavily on the opportunities they have for their children’s education,” DeVos said. In a 2017 survey by the Military Times, 35 percent of service members with children said dissatisfaction with their children’s education was a “significant” factor in deciding whether or not to continue with their service. “So I think we have an opportunity in that regard to empower them with some more of those choices.”
DeVos added that parents could use those ESAs, which could be financed with money that goes to the school to which they’re now assigned, to ensure their children receive a high-quality, “customized” education as they move from “base to base to base and city to city to city.”
The money could be used at traditional public schools, charter schools, for online learning, or some combination of the three, the secretary said. She did not specifically mention private schools.
Among President Donald Trump’s campaign promises was the creation of a $20 billion school voucher program. But so far, Republicans in Congress haven’t been willing to embrace federal funding for private school choice, beyond a change in the recent tax-overhaul bill allowing families to use 529 college-savings plans for K-12 tuition.
That’s partly because many in the GOP worry about federal overreach, even in the service of school choice, a policy that most Republicans favor. But focusing on a particular group of students that the federal government has a special responsibility for may be an easier sell.
To be sure, DeVos made it clear that she still wants to grow other choice initiatives. She applauded states for expanding choice and said the federal government would like to partner with them to take those efforts further.
DeVos wasn’t specific about where the funding for the new ESAs for military families would come from. Her spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hill, said later that “there are several pieces of legislation that could make that happen, and she looks forward to working with Congress on this issue.”
Last year, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative, Washington-based think tank with close ties to the Trump administration, pitched turning the $1.3 billion in funding for Impact Aid program into an ESA program.
Impact Aid helps school districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation, and it enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.
The proposal appears to have gotten some attention from the White House and could be introduced as a bill soon.
But groups representing military families and Impact Aid districts—including the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Officers Association of America, National Military Family Association, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, and the Military Impacted Schools Association—are vehemently opposed to the idea. They argue it would hurt public schools serving vulnerable populations.
Impact Aid Concerns
“Proposals to divert Impact Aid from schools that educate concentrations of military-connected students are shortsighted and will only reduce opportunities for all students in these school districts,” the groups said in a statement released in December.
Another possibility: using Pentagon dollars to create an ESA program, which might be operated by the Department of Defense. For instance, legislation introduced by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., would set up a pilot program on at least five bases. Military families would be eligible for scholarships of up to $8,000 per child for elementary and $12,000 for high school under his proposal.
There have also been efforts to add similar language to Defense bills. But so far, none of them has passed.
Advocates for military families say they’ll take a close and cautious look at any proposals released.
Mary M. Keller, the president and CEO of the Military Child Education Coalition, said in a recent interview that her organization is in favor of “informed choice” for military parents.
But the group also wants to make sure choice proposals won’t leave out students with special needs and will benefit low-income families as well as wealthier students. She also wants to see significant oversight and transparency so that parents can make an informed decision.
What’s more, Keller has big practical questions, about such issues as transportation and how vouchers would work if a child switched schools in the middle of the year because his or her parents’ assignment changed.
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as DeVos Eyeing School Choice As Option for Military Families