What if military families controlled their own education aid?

Many conservatives and libertarians question whether the federal government should get involved in school choice.

They might believe in scholarship or voucher programs, but they also believe the federal government shouldn’t create them, except in certain narrow cases. Those include programs for students in Washington D.C., where Congress oversees the education system, students living on Indian reservations, and a few others.

A new Heritage Foundation report argues the federal government could fund educational choice for another group of students — those whose parents serve in the military.

The report argues:

The federal government’s exclusive responsibility and mandate to oversee national defense and the military extends to military-related issues that impact education. Whereas education is not an enumerated power of the federal government per the U.S. Constitution, national defense is clearly so, and the education of military-connected children has a special place as a Department of Education (DOE) program. Since it pertains to the U.S. military Impact Aid is one of the few federal programs dealing with education that has constitutional warrant. Just as there is no question, constitutionally speaking, that the federal government has authority over the military, so also does the federal government have authority to implement or modify programs that provide federal funding to military families.

The conservatives at Heritage don’t want new federal spending. Their basic idea is straightforward. Rather than send federal “Impact Aid” to school districts in the vicinity of military bases, the federal government could give control of the money directly to families. Parents could place the money in education savings account that could pay for private school tuition, homeschooling expenses, or related uses.

It’s an intriguing idea. And it’s triggered a debate that gives lie to one of the great false dichotomies in education policy: Funding students, versus funding the system.

‘Bonkers?’

Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners calls the Heritage idea “bonkers.” He and other critics say Impact Aid is supposed to compensate school districts for giant, federally owned military properties that take huge chunks of land off local property tax rolls. Giving the money directly to families would run afoul of that purpose. Hilary Goldmann, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, told the Washington Post Impact Aid is supposed to “serve all the children in the district — not a certain subset.”

Heritage authors Lindsey Burke and Anne Ryland anticipate this argument in their report. They write that “the heart of this program is devoted to funding federally connected children.” Children, not districts. They cite information from the U.S. Education Department, which shows some $1.2 billion of the $1.3 billion the federal government spends on Impact Aid goes to Basic Support Payments — payments intended to support the K-12 educational needs of military families.

The remaining money does compensate school districts for lost property taxes. But in its final budget request, the Obama Administration proposed eliminating that funding. It indicated officials were more concerned with funding services for students than institutions:

This authority provides payments to [school districts] without regard to the presence of federally connected children and, therefore, does not necessarily support the provision of educational services for these children.

Military families are constantly on the move, on orders from the federal government. Higher mobility can hinder their children’s academic progress. Sen. Tim Scott has noted it can be harder for military families to participate in conventional school choice programs. Heritage notes they’re more likely than other families to homeschool.

The main goal of Impact Aid is to help mitigate these hardships. Heritage argues giving families direct control of this funding, rather than sending it to local districts, might help them more effectively.

But there are different levels of Impact Aid. Districts with heavy concentrations of military students get a larger amount of funding. This makes sense. Studies have found high student mobility rates don’t just hurt the achievement of students who move around a lot. They might also affect the performance of their entire schools.

Students or systems?

Here’s how Heritage’s proposal might work.

Students who live on-base and attend schools operated by the Department of Defense could receive education savings accounts worth most of what the federal government would have spent on their schooling. That’s $12,000 in one scenario outlined in the report — a generous sum compared to existing ESA programs, but still less than the government spends per student to run schools on military bases.

Most students who don’t live on-base and attend a local public school would receive about $1,306. In states with existing school choice programs, that money could supplement other education programs. It could top off a state-funded education savings account, giving the students extra money to spend on tutoring, online courses or tuition at slightly pricier private schools.

Students who attend public schools close to bases, where large numbers of military-connected children attend, could receive a larger sum — something like $4,600. That’s still not enough to cover full tuition at a private school, but it could come close. And it could be a game-changing amount of money if their state created an education savings account program, and the federal funding served as a supplement.

But the federal government doesn’t just send additional money to “heavily impacted” school districts to help individual students. It sends additional money to districts with high concentrations of military families because it understands those families might need system-wide services that districts have to provide. Guidance for students who move around a lot. Support for families coping with parents deployed overseas. Help navigating the school choice process.

It might make sense to fund students, not the system. But as school choice advocates retool existing programs to make funding portable and give parents more control, it’s worth remembering that programs like federal Impact Aid are intended to deal with individual and systemic issues.

For that reason, it might make sense to keep some resources in the hands of system-wide institutions — including school districts.

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