Military school voucher proposal would be the wrong approach

Military school voucher proposal would be the wrong approach
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Imagine you’re a military family. On top of repeated deployments and long separations you also have to cope with frequent moves – typically, every two to three years. Most families quickly master the art of packing and unpacking, making new friends, and settling quickly into their new communities. But even the most seasoned military family often struggles helping their children cope — again — with being the new kid in school.

Over the years, officials at the local, state, and federal level have proposed solutions to help military kids adjust to new schools and succeed academically. Some, like the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children — an agreement between all 50 states and Washington, D.C. that addresses some of the most common transition-related issues — have been a success. Other proposals miss the mark.

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Among the most egregious “misses” is recently introduced legislation that would shift federal dollars known as Impact Aid into private school vouchers for some military kids. While this might sound like a good idea, if you look carefully it soon becomes clear that it’s a bad deal, both for military families and for their civilian friends and neighbors.

 

There are multiple problems with this proposal, but three really stand out. First, it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Impact Aid and the critical role it plays supporting public schools. Second, it creates a system of haves and have-nots among military families based on arbitrary criteria. Third, it over promises what an education voucher can do, setting up unrealistic expectations among military families.

To realize why this congressional proposal is such bad policy, it helps to understand what Impact Aid is. Most local school districts are funded largely through local property taxes. However, federal lands, like military installations, aren’t subject to local property taxes, so school districts that include such properties are at a financial disadvantage.

Impact Aid was created in 1950 to make up for the loss of property tax revenue. Money from Impact Aid goes directly to local school districts, which use it as they see fit: to pay teacher salaries, maintain school buses, purchase textbooks, etc. Some schools receive nearly half their total funding from Impact Aid.

Impact Aid supports nearly 1,200 school districts across the country. These schools educate thousands of military-connected kids. Taking money away from Impact Aid would critically compromise these schools’ ability to provide a high-quality education.

It gets worse. Not every military family would qualify for a voucher under the proposal. Families living in “heavily impacted” districts would be eligible for $4,500. That sounds great until you realize there are only 22 “heavily impacted” school districts in the entire country. Families who live on base in non-heavily impacted districts would qualify for $2,500 vouchers.

The eligibility criteria have nothing to do with the quality of local public schools or the availability of other school choice options in a district. It makes no sense to create an education benefit that only a few families would be eligible for, especially when that benefit would drain resources from schools serving thousands of other military kids.

Finally, the vouchers wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay for a military-connected child’s education expenses. The average private school tuition is $10,000 per year. What happens when a military family opts into the voucher program — giving up their child’s right to attend public school — and then finds they can’t afford the extra cost?

In short, this is a bad idea.

While the flaws are obvious, the plan has garnered a great deal of support among members of Congress. The bill’s sponsors are pushing to include it in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act later this month. If this happens, an unfortunate idea could become law.

It’s time we protect military families and local school districts from this sort of policy experiment. A bad idea is a bad idea, even if it is wrapped up in the best of intentions.

Joyce Wessel Raezer is executive director of the nonprofit National Military Family Association, a group advocating for military families since 1969.