The recent action of the Fairfax County School Board, imposing tuition charges on the children of military personnel residing on Ft. Belvoir, has created a battle in which there will be no winners--and both the military and civilian communities and the nation will be the big losers.
In response to proposed reductions in federal impact aid payments, the Fairfax County School Board developed a tuition fee schedule--applicable only to the children from Ft. Belvoir--that varies from $1,300 for a family with a single child in kindergarten to nearly $20,000 for a child who is handicapped or in a special program. To say that such charges pose an unreasonable and inequitable financial burden on our service members, most of whom are enlisted personnel, is a drastic understatement.
For a local school jurisdiction to impose charges on a service member who happens to reside in a particular community denies a basic fact of military life and national defense requirements --military members cannot choose where they live. On entering the military, one agrees to go where ordered-- often moving frequently, sometimes without one's family. Often one has little real choice whether he or she lives on or off base. It was specifically to relieve military members from the competing claims of local taxing authorities that Congress over 40 years ago passed legislation known as the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act.
It is particularly unfortunate that this issue arises at the very time that the president, with support of Congress, has undertaken steps to restore military service to its rightful position of pride and prestige. Congress, at the administration's request, has voted pay raises and bonuses to stem the exodus of highly skilled career military members. The pay raises and bonuses pale compared to the size of the proposed tuition charges. While there was an exodus of trained manpower prior to the recent pay raises, this could become an epidemic if tuition charges become a reality throughout the nation. This would result in a profound degradation of our military's readiness and destroy the essential underpinning of the volunteer military force.
Assessing tuition charges on the very individuals protecting the security of this nation is wrong. It is particularly ironic that the children of our military members could be subject to these charges at exactly the same time as the courts may decide that illegal aliens have a right to a free public education. The argument is between the federal government and state and local authorities. The children of our military men and women should not be used as pawns in this battle.
Because the discussion revolves around budget and taxes, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people--specifically, people who have chosen to serve their country in uniform. Let us take a hypothetical example. Since Staff Sgt. (E-6) Joe Jones enlisted in the Army in 1969, he has moved six times, including two remote tours (Vietnam and Korea) without his family. Each move has cost him money out of his own pocket because the government has not provided adequate reimbursement. Frequent moves have also made it difficult for his wife to establish herself in a job that pays enough so that they could purchase a home. After 12 years in service, Jones earns approximately $14,000 a year and lives in base housing. His only assets are a car and some furniture.
Now he is faced with tuition charges of $7,800 so that his three children can attend public elementary school. There is no way he can make such payments, so he plans to leave the service when his enlistment expires in January. He doesn't know what he will do if he is liable for tuition charges for the time his children have been in school this fall.
Jones is a skilled computer repairer, a specialty of which there is a shortage in the Army. He is one of the highly trained technicians the Army cannot afford to lose. In fact, the Army would pay him a bonus of $4,624 ($1,156 per year of reenlistment) to keep him in the service because the Army has in the past lost too many senior computer technicians to the better-paying private sector. Unfortunately, the amount of the bonus would not even begin to pay one year's tuition for his children.
Jones is an innocent victim caught between two political jurisdictions competing for reduced tax revenues. He created tax policy for neither jurisdiction. He is ill-equipped to solve the tax dilemma, subject to community hostility because of it and totally unable to absorb the tuition charges. The lawsuit filed by the federal government seeks to take Jones out of the battle between the federal and local governments.
He does not belong there.