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Last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told parents at a primary school in Fort Bragg, N.C., that the Trump administration wanted to provide vouchers for them to send their children to any school they wanted, not just ones run by the Defense Department. There wasn’t, as it turned out, overwhelming support for the offer.

More than 80 percent of military-connected students are educated in public schools, with 73,000-plus students attending 168 Defense Department schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, Guam and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity, an agency that runs pre-K through 12th-grade educational programs for stationed military families.

Now there is legislation that has been introduced in Congress to set up such a voucher program for military families.

Here’s a look at the issue by Carol Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal who is executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Burris was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. She has been chronicling problems with modern school reform and school choice for years on this blog.

By Carol Burris

Thirty Republican U.S. congressmen and three Republican U.S. senators have signed onto national voucher bills that would direct federal tax dollars from public schools (perhaps your public school) and let military families use these funds for religious schools, private schools, online schools, college tuition and other educational services.

What is most remarkable is that the bills are moving forward in the face of significant military family opposition.

The Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Impacted Schools Association, the Military Officers Association of America, and the National Military Family Association all oppose the idea of taking federal money from the public schools that over 80 percent of all military families use, to give vouchers to a few.

But despite opposition to these bills by key organizations dedicated to the needs of military families, HR 5199 and S. 2517, have the full support of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

An overview of the Education Savings Account Act for Military Families

Both HR 5199 and S. 2517 use Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) to deliver funding for privatized choice options. ESAs have become the favored voucher program of many on the right because they get around state Blaine Amendment restrictions that prohibit the public funding of religious instruction. ESAs allow tax dollars to be used for home schooling, for-profit online schools, “a la carte” education, and for private and religious school expenses.

While some voucher programs insist that schools not discriminate, this is not the case with ESAs. Here is wording that was included in both HR 5199 and S. 2517, giving license to private schools to discriminate on the basis of religion, ability, disability or sexual orientation, while receiving federal tax dollars:

Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a qualified educational service provider to alter its creed, practices, admissions policy, or curriculum to be eligible to receive payments.

The money to fund the ESAs would come from a fund known as the Federal Impact Aid Program.

What is the Federal Impact Aid Program?

Impact Aid helps fund school districts that lose tax revenue because their district includes federally tax-exempt land such as military bases, Native American reservations, national parks or federal housing. The rationale is that if the land were not tax-exempt, the district would have more revenue from local taxes levied on private homes and businesses.

As of 2016, Impact Aid provided funding for about 1,300 school districts that in total educate more than 11 million students. How the funds are used is determined by the district. The Impact Aid program, which began in 1950, was never intended to be allocated to a particular student, but rather to support all students in districts where there was less local funding due to tax-exempt land.

The National Military Family Association (NMFA) understands the benefit of Impact Aid and strongly opposes taking money from the program to fund voucher ESAs. Its website says:

Many school systems in heavily impacted areas would be completely defunded without the use of Impact Aid. If a military family can’t afford the full cost of private tuition, their child is left in a school that no longer has the resources to provide a quality education … especially since there is no scenario where every military kid would receive those funds. Instead of undermining public school systems through ESAs, perhaps we should be fully funding Federal Impact Aid, which hasn’t seen full funding since 1969. It makes no sense to defund Impact Aid just to deliver a benefit of questionable value to only a fraction of our nation’s military families.

How much would military families receive, and for what could it be used?

Families would receive either $4,500 or $2,500 a year depending upon whether the family lives within the boundaries of a highly impacted local education agency (school district).

Without getting into the weeds of the definition of “highly impacted,” there are few highly impacted LEAs; therefore most families would be eligible for the $2,500 payment, not nearly enough to pay for private schools.

Noting that the national average private school tuition is around $10,000 per year, Joyce Raezer, the executive director of NMFA, said in this article: “This sets unrealistic expectations among military families, who will be left holding the bag when the promised ESAs aren’t enough to finance their children’s education.”

Although some military families might be able to make up the difference, most cannot, setting up a system that NMFA refers to as one of “have and have-nots.”

Once families realize that those dollars do not go far, it will be, at least in the short term, too late. Like all ESA programs, those receiving ESAs must sign away their child’s right to attend a public school full-time while they are participating in the program. That would leave military families that cannot make up the difference with options such as online schooling, with its dismal results, and home-schooling supplemented by purchased supplemental services from school districts, tutors or, more likely, vendors.

The Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) is especially worried that unscrupulous vendors will descend on military families even as for-profit colleges have victimized veterans. The association’s website says: “Generally, when government money funds an activity, unethical players will appear to make a profit.”

Reflecting on how for-profit colleges have taken advantage of veterans, the Military Officers Association of America continued by observing, “It is possible increased federal funding for ESAs (via Impact Aid) could lead to similar transgressions, with parties providing less than appropriate levels of education and soaking up federal money, unless there is significant federal oversight/regulation — a costly burden in itself.”

Who will provide the federal oversight and regulation to make sure that families will not be victimized by profiteers?  DeVos would be in charge, and her track record in that regard is not good.

Last summer, 18 states filed suit against DeVos, accusing her of breaking federal law and not cracking down on for-profit colleges by not following the Borrower Defense Rule, which would have allowed student loans to be forgiven if a state takes successful legal action against a for-profit school.

DeVos would also be assigned the task of approving vendors, distributing the funds and maintaining a fraud hotline. Unlike other ESA programs, these bills do not require that parents submit receipts. A spending log suffices. The only required oversight of spending is for the Secretary of Education to conduct random surveys “as needed.” In exchange, her department would get to keep 5 percent of the funds.

There is no obligation on the part of the families to demonstrate that their children learned anything at all. There are no testing requirements. Parents would only have to promise to provide instruction in reading, language, mathematics, science and social studies.

If groups that represent military families are opposed, who proposed these ESAs?

The Heritage Foundation, EdChoice and the American Legislative Exchange Council — three organizations that promote anti-public-education, pro-school-privatization policies — worked with first-term Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) to write the legislation. You can hear Banks speak at a gathering of the three groups here.

The groups say the legislation is in response to needs expressed in a survey of military families, conducted by EdChoice last summer. Commenting on the quality of the survey, the Military Officers Association of America had the following to say:

“When they (EdChoice) rolled out the survey last summer, MOAA asked about the organization’s familiarity with military families and their specific challenges; EdChoice staff admitted they are not typically engaged in surveying at the national level or among the military population. EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation arrived at their conclusions on the basis of insufficient data; their survey should not be used as a data point for creating federal policy.” (italics mine)

Of interest is that the survey began on June 23, 2017, and the report was published last October.

However, DeVos was promoting vouchers for military families when she visited Fort Bragg in April 2017. And on June 2, 2017, before the survey began, the Heritage Foundation rolled out a report promoting ESAs, calling them “A GI Bill for the Children of Military Families.”

Was the survey a push poll to generate support for a plan already in place?

Additional concerns

Neither bill puts a limit or cap on the amount of Impact Aid funding that can be shifted to ESAs. Nor do the bills restrict their use to K-12 students. It appears that voucher money would be available for military children from ages 0 to 22. Will school district Impact Aid be used to fund private preschool programs? College tuition? Could families who can (and already) pay private school tuition roll over most of the money to use as a college fund?

The way the bills were written, it appears that all of the above are possible. If this were to occur, the entire Impact Aid Program could be drained, the public schools that military children attend depleted of resources, and some highly Impact Aid-dependent public schools destroyed.

(Correction: An earlier version of this post said EdChoice did not publish questions it used on a recent survey. It did.)