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Military Coalition Tells Congress Not to Raid Federal Budget for School Choice

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 10, 2018 3 min read
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A consortium of groups representing military veterans and branches of the armed forces have a message for Congress: Don’t turn a popular federal education program into vouchers.

In an April 5 letter to lawmakers, the Military Coalition said converting Impact Aid, a line item in the U.S. Department of Education’s budget designed to mitigate the impact of federal activities on school districts, into funding for education savings accounts “would be financially devastating for many school districts, critically compromising the quality of the education they could provide to military children and their civilian classmates.”

The coalition is pushing back on the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act, which was introduced last month by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. Banks’ bill would convert a “small portion” of Impact Aid’s $1.3 billion to ESAs, which families could use on private school tuition, tutoring, and other education costs—the exact amount of Impact Aid funding that would be directed to ESAs would depend on how many families choose to sign up for the accounts.

(Technically, education savings accounts are distinct from vouchers. Learn more about the difference between the two in this helpful explainer from our colleague Arianna Prothero.)

Banks cited a Military Times poll, which found that more than a third of families surveyed said they considered dissatisfaction with their children’s education a “significant factor” in deciding whether to continue in the armed forces. He said in a statement that, “The flexibility in this legislation will allow military families the freedom to tailor their children’s education to best fit individual needs and maximize academic achievement.”

And Tuesday, Heritage’s political action arm sent a letter signed by over 2,000 active and retired military service members expressing “strong support” for Banks bill.

But in its letter, the military coalition says that only a minority of military families would be eligible, and that the value of the ESA for the majority of those eligible would be $2,500. (Heritage says families would get up to $4,500 a year per child under Banks’ proposal.) In addition, the letter states that National Guard and Reserves families would not be eligible for an ESA under Banks’ bill.

“It is counterproductive to defund Impact Aid, a successful program that has long enjoyed bipartisan support, in order to provide a benefit of questionable value to a minority of military students,” the coalition stated.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has backed the idea of increasing school choice for military families, and the prominent Heritage Foundation supports Banks’ bill. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., has also backed school choice legislation covering military families. But it’s important to remember that the House lawmaker in charge of DeVos’ budget is very protective of Impact Aid.

During a budget hearing last month, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House appropriations committee that oversees Education Department spending, scolded DeVos for backing a cut to Impact Aid in the Trump administration’s fiscal 2019 budget. Cole’s subcommittee also approved a fiscal 2018 budget bill that didn’t include the two signature Trump administration programs that would have boosted private school choice. (The final funding bill Congress passed for fiscal 2018 also didn’t include any money for those two programs.)

The letter was sent to to Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the House education committee chairwoman; Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the House committee’s top Democrat; Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House armed services committee; and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the House armed services committee’s top Democrat. Members of the Military Coalition include the Military Officers Association of America, the Military Order of the Purple Order, and the Military Chaplains Association of the USA.

Read the full letter from the Military Coalition below:

And read the Heritage-backed letter below:

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