Expand school choice for military families, but don’t fund it with Impact Aid

Expand school choice for military families, but don’t fund it with Impact Aid
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Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) has floated a proposal that would create education savings accounts (ESAs) for eligible military families and pay for them by repurposing federal “Impact Aid.” This is a case of trying to pursue a worthwhile cause in an ill-conceived fashion, and it met a fitting end when it was ruled “out of order” during the House’s reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

That said, efforts to expand educational options for military families make good sense, so it’s worth spelling out why the impulse is a sensible one but Banks’s H.R. 5199 was the wrong way to go about it.

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H.R. 5199 and a similar Senate bill (S. 2517) would provide a subset of “military-connected” children ages zero to 21 with an education savings account that could be used for private school tuition, online learning, tutoring, or other educational services. The federal government would contribute $2,500 per child in most cases — and $4,500 in “heavily impacted” areas (as defined in law) — to the accounts each year. This is the part that’s easy to like. After all, expanding school options for military families makes good sense. For one thing, military families face unique living circumstances. Active duty children move on average between six and nine times, during their K-12 years. Given that, it makes sense to provide more flexibility and support to military families as they seek to help their children negotiate these transitions.

 

On the other hand, proposals to fund the annual cost of these ESAs (estimated to be up to $450 million) by repurposing federal “Impact Aid” is a really bad idea — especially for policymakers who want to honor military service and the communities that support the nation’s armed forces. What is Impact Aid? This is federal money that assists approximately 1,200 school districts across the nation where a federal presence has removed tracts of land from the taxable property roles — thus leaving communities less able to raise the funds necessary to support local school systems. In some communities, Impact Aid can amount to upwards of 30 percent of a local school district’s budget.

Now, to avoid confusing the issue, it’s important to clarify that Impact Aid isn’t just about support for communities which house military bases. It also extends to communities which lose taxable land to other federal activities, such as those on Native American reservations or national parks, and in low-rent housing. In total, Impact Aid provides about $1.3 billion in funding for these locales. Left and right alike can appreciate the logic of Washington helping to mitigate its impact on communities where the federal footprint impinges most directly on the local economy.

An analysis by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools estimates that about 40 percent of Impact Aid funding could be repurposed by a bill like H.R. 5199. Stripping funds from military communities, which have smaller local tax bases because their land is supporting the nation’s armed forces, would be both perverse and politically tone-deaf. Indeed, even proposing such cuts sends the wrong message to communities which are doing more than their share to contribute to the nation’s security.

This helps explain why even as staunch an advocate for school choice as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosDon’t worry (too much) about Kavanaugh changing the Supreme Court Overnight Defense: Fallout from tense NATO summit | Senators push to block ZTE deal in defense bill | Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to run Afghan war Blackwater founder makes new pitch for mercenaries to take over Afghan war MORE is, she opposed the Impact Aid proposal in Banks’s bill. As DeVos said during a recent appearance before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, “I support the concept of giving military families more options and choices, but the vehicle of using an Impact Aid funding stream is not one that I support or the administration supports." DeVos got it just right, on both halves of that equation.

Seeking to expand educational choices for military families is an appropriate emphasis for federal policymakers. And such proposals seem sure to be a fixture of federal education policymaking for at least the balance of the Trump administration. But the plight of H.R. 5199 is instructive. As future versions of this proposal are proffered in years to come, it will be important to ensure that this effort to support and honor military families doesn’t come at the expense of the communities that they call home.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brendan Bell is a research assistant at AEI.