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Saluting School Choice for Military Families

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Americans who join the military know they’ll be making sacrifices. They put their lives on the line, obviously, but beyond that, they know they’ll have no say in where they live. Indeed, frequent moves are often part of the package.

The service-member in question may understand and accept this, but what about the sacrifices of his or her children? They’ll be moving, too. That means not only a new home and new neighbors, but a new school.

Which one will they attend? Not a whole lot of choice there, either. It’s going to be the closest public school to their new home, regardless of how good it is – or whether it’s the right fit.

That’s a tough break, you may say, but do we really need to address this? And besides, what can anyone do?

The reason we should address this is simple: Besides basic fairness and wanting to do right by our service-members, it’s not a stretch to say this can affect military readiness.

How? Retention rates. Many military families are unhappy with their present school situations. As education expert Lindsey Burke writes in a recent paper:

“In a survey conducted by the Military Times, more than a third of readers (who are military personnel) said decisions about whether to remain in the military hinged in large part on dissatisfaction with their children’s education. Moreover, 80 percent of children from military families currently attend public schools, but only 34 percent of those surveyed said they would choose public schools as their first option.”

That’s a high level of dissatisfaction. So what can we do about it? Quite simply, we can extend the benefits of school choice to military families.

If that sounds a bit radical, it shouldn’t. For one thing, school choice is becoming more and more the norm nationwide. But even if it wasn’t, this approach mimics what service-members themselves have enjoyed for decades through the G.I. Bill.

The G.I. Bill, of course, dates back to the World War II era. It was enacted to assist returning military personnel to get the education they needed and better adjust to civilian life. Part of that meant helping former service-members pay for college – at a university of their choosing. It was, in effect, an early form of school choice that followed the service-member to whatever school he picked.

That’s all this would do. Except instead of paying for the service-member’s college, it would pay for his or her children’s education at an elementary school or high school of their choice.

You can imagine what a positive effect this would have on retention rates. Plus, it would offer some peace of mind to our hard-working military personnel, who already have enough on their minds with all of the moving around they have to do.

Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) recently introduced a bill that would extend school choice to their children. Under his Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018, military families wouldn’t have to settle for the nearest public school – they could choose the one that’s the right fit for their children.

The proposal would provide education savings accounts to eligible children from military families derived from the funds that would have been sent to a public school on the child’s behalf through the federal Impact Aid program, enabling families to instead direct those dollars to options that work for them. That can mean private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, private tutoring, and a host of other education-related products, providers and services.

Similar legislation has been introduced by Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). It’s looking more and more like this is an idea whose time has come.

“The men and women who serve our coun­try in uni­form make sac­ri­fices daily,” Rep. Banks recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “but the ed­u­cation of their chil­dren should not be one of them.” 

He’s right. Let’s give them the choice they want – and deserve.

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