Military Families Want Better Schooling, but Special Interests Stand in the Way

By Lindsey M. Burke, Director, Center for Education Policy and Will Skillman Fellow in Education, The Heritage Foundation.

Dems warn school vouchers for military families could ‘derail’ annual defense bill,” Politico reported last week.

At the same time, special-interest groups, such as the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, are holding Capitol Hill briefings suggesting that empowering military families with school choice would “defund Impact Aid.”

These objections, however, are without merit, and only reflect a desire among special-interest groups to maintain the status quo.

Under a proposal to provide education savings accounts to eligible military families, Impact Aid funding would be controlled by the parents of eligible children, instead of by government schools.

Impact Aid is federal funding provided for the education of children who live in an area with a reduced property tax base owing to a federal presence.  

Under the proposal introduced by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., Impact Aid funding isn’t reduced. It is simply provided directly to eligible families, instead of to school districts. That would enable families to pursue education options that are the right fit for their children, and that’s critical for military families who move frequently owing to new assignments.

With education savings accounts, these families could pay for any education option that works for their children, including individual public school and charter school courses, private school tuition, online learning, tutors, and special education services.

Modernizing Impact Aid this way—that is, to make it more flexible to meet the needs of military families—aligns with how Congress has always funded the GI Bill for their parents. Those funds follow the military member to any college of his or her choice. The same should be applied to the K-12 students of military families.

This is a commonsense, long-overdue reform.

Military families support education savings accounts overwhelmingly—72 percent in favor, compared with 15 percent opposed, according to a recent survey conducted by Braun Research.

According to the survey, published by EdChoice, the most common reasons military families cited for supporting education savings accounts were “access to better academic environment” (30 percent), “more freedom and flexibility for parents” (28 percent), and a “focus on more individual attention” (22 percent).

Such options will be critical in addressing service member retention and recruitment issues that currently impede national security.

The needs and desires of military families should be what drive the conversation around modernizing Impact Aid to make funding student-centered and portable.

Any attempt to win over special-interest groups that exist to maintain the status quo in public education is a fool’s errand. Groups that exist to serve the adults in the system will remain opposed to any changes to government funding that benefits them.

By contrast, providing education savings accounts to military families would better align power and incentives between schools and families.

Districts would receive funding as a result of military families choosing schools, not districts choosing kids. That means schools would have to demonstrate they’re a good fit for a family.

If the school isn’t a good fit, military families—like all other families—deserve alternatives.

So, conservatives and other school choice supporters in Congress have a decision to make. They can continue down the path preferred by special-interest groups that exist to benefit from taxpayer funds, or they can give our armed forces what they want and deserve; namely, education choice options for their children.

*This commentary originally appeared in The Daily Signal.

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