Last month at a policy summit for the American Federation for Children, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos heralded the advent of “the most ambitious expansion of education choice in our nation’s history.” President Trump, she said, was committed to “empowering parents to make the best choices for their kids’ education.”
One major step Congress could take to make this pledge a reality is to let “Impact Aid” — federal funds now sent to public schools near military bases — flow directly to the children of military families. If these funds were distributed to education savings accounts (ESAs), military families should then be able to spend it on the services, products and providers they determine are best suited to meet their children’s educational needs.
There is constitutional warrant to justify this type of program. After all, the life and support of military families is a crucial part of our national defense — an enumerated power of the federal government.
Providing school choice to military families strengthens us all. When military families are given high-quality education options, it benefits their children and the life and security of the nation as a whole.
The quality of education available to children of those in uniform affects military readiness. Lack of access to good quality schools can be a determining factor in the decision of service members on whether they will accept a new assignment or even leave military service altogether.
A recent survey conducted by Military Times found that 35 percent of respondents said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to remain in or leave military service.
The Pentagon’s changes to policy in 2016 enabling families to remain at duty stations for longer time periods was a direct response “to complaints by military parents who are loathe to move if the next duty station has poorly performing schools.”
Those complaints may stem from the fact that military-connected children are too often assigned to the public schools closest to military bases, regardless of whether those district schools are right for them. As a result, 80 percent of the 1.2 million military-connected school-aged children attend traditional public schools, and 4 percent attend Department of Defense schools located on base. More than half of children of active-duty military families live in states with no school choice options at all.
Like their civilian-family counterparts, children of military families deserve a choice in where they attend school. One of the best ways to advance choice is through innovative Education Savings Accounts.
ESAs are parent-controlled accounts funded with a portion (usually 90 percent) of what a given state would have spent on a child in the district school system. Across the U.S., five states have established ESA options: Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi and Nevada.
In Arizona, funds are deposited quarterly into the ESA (going onto a debit card). Parents can then direct those funds to any education-related service, product or provider. They may be used to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, private tutors, textbooks, curricula and any other education-related services of their choice. Parents are using the flexibility of ESAs to customize educational experiences for their children. Nearly one-third of parents in Arizona use their ESAs to craft a fully la carte educational program.
To ensure that those who serve in the military are able to access education options that serve them in the best way possible, federal policymakers should work to empower them with education choice. Transitioning Impact Aid funding into parent-controlled education savings accounts would ensure that the federal program serves military families as well as they serve us.
• Anne Ryland is a research assistant in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. The Center’s director, Lindsey Burke, is the think tank’s Will Skillman Fellow in Education Studies.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.