Opinion

Strengthen Educational Opportunity for Military Families

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Posted: Jan 27, 2018 12:01 AM
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Strengthen Educational Opportunity for Military Families

Our nation’s security and the education of its children are two critically important issues that coincide with the need to ensure quality educational opportunities for children of active-duty military.  Recent studies have found that providing additional education alternatives for children of military families can contribute to their quality of life and ultimately the retention of needed, experienced personnel.

One of the most important factors in military “readiness” – especially given the nature of an all-volunteer force – is the quality and experience of the men and women who wear the uniform in defense of our nation.  That’s why the Commander-in-Chief, military brass and Congress need to ensure that quality-of-life issues in the military are continually addressed and challenges mitigated for our military personnel and their families, with a focus on strengthening educational opportunity.

There are approximately 750,000 school-age children whose parents are active-duty military personnel, about 80 percent of whom are educated in public school districts near the assigned base of their parents.  The Department of Defense (DOD) itself operates 57 schools on 15 out of the more than 200 bases in the U.S., which serve only about 4 percent of military-connected children.  Another 7 percent of military children are homeschooled – the latter percentage being twice the national average.

Alarmingly, 70 percent military personnel surveyed by Military Times agreed that moving between states as part of their service added challenges to their children’s education.  The implications of this and other survey findings are significant given the average age of military enlistees is 27 and, for officers, 34.5 – the very years common to have school-age children or younger.

The importance of a quality education for military children was further evidenced in a survey of 1,200 active-duty military personnel released last fall by EdChoice.  It found that twice the percentage of military families compared to civilian families reported moving to be closer to their children’s schools, and more than twice the percentage paid for transportation to school, along with other similar findings.

Our nation has long recognized the importance of education for military personnel, with the G.I. Bill perhaps the best known example, which enables military personnel to attend the higher education institution of their choice.  Similarly, the federal government should provide greater educational options for the children of our soldiers, sailors, pilots and support personnel to sustain and enhance the quality of military life, and further compensate for the sacrifices they endure, including the frequency in which military personnel and their families are transferred to other locales.

Federal action on this issue was urged by Lindsey Burke, Director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, at a recent school choice panel conducted by the Invest in Education Foundation and the #EdTaxCredit50 project.  Burke pointed out that more than half the children of active-duty military families reside in states with no school choice options; and, even those states with choice programs are too often limited by program eligibility and scope.

Educational choice policies are strongly supported by military families according to the EdChoice survey.  For example, education savings accounts, which are government-funded accounts for individual families to spend on a variety of approved education services for their children, were overwhelmingly supported by 72 percent of military respondents (compared to only 15 percent opposed).  School vouchers and tax credit scholarships had similar, lopsided support.

Education savings accounts exist in only six states, five of which limit them to specific student populations, typically students with special needs.  The federal government is uniquely positioned to provide our nation’s military families with the financial capacity to better educate their children by giving them the choice of accessing an education savings account.  ESAs, unlike vouchers or tax credits, also would give military families the choice of what educational services to purchase, be it for tuition at a private school, tutoring, curriculum materials, on-line courses and other educational benefits for their children.

Federally funded education savings accounts for military families need not add to DOD’s budget, or the federal deficit.  Currently, the military spends $1.3 billion in “Impact Aid” annually for the education of children in military families, most of which is spent to compensate school districts where the students attend.  Military families should be given the choice of accessing a per capita amount of this Impact Aid through an education savings account to enable them access or provide directly more quality educational options.  Military families who are satisfied with their child’s public school or DOD school would not use ESA, leaving their share of Impact Aid with the school district their children attend.

The United States military remains the most advanced and lethal force on earth.  Yet, this status is not automatic, and will not remain so absent a greater commitment to the needs of its all-volunteer force.

Attracting and retaining quality personnel in our Armed Forces to operate its planes, ships and missiles requires sustaining and enhancing their quality of life, including by improving the educational options for their children.  Providing education savings accounts to military families is just the means by which to immediately increase the educational opportunity such families deserve for their service to our country.