Cutting GI education bill will impact thousands of veterans

Cutting GI education bill will impact thousands of veterans
© US Marine Corps

Members of Congress like to use the term “heroes” on a routine basis when describing veterans.  So it is shocking to discover that behind the scenes some members of the House Veterans Committee are seeking to significantly cut assistance for veterans pursuing valuable careers in commercial aviation.

Currently, there are thousands of veterans enrolled in public universities and engaged in training to obtain the requisite flight hours to achieve their dreams of becoming commercial pilots.

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The vast majority of them are utilizing the GI Bill to cover the tuition costs of their education as well as the costs of completing the needed training.

 

The commercial aviation industry and U.S. military have both voiced that there is an impending shortage of properly trained pilots making the current training pipeline an even more valued conduit for veterans seeking meaningful careers.

Yet, oddly enough, some Members of Congress that serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee feel the benefits our veterans receive pursuing this field should be reduced.

In 2015, fair and legitimate concerns were raised in Congress that lack of VA oversight of GI Bill benefits had failed to prevent a small minority of enrolled students from making satisfactory progress in their academic programs, while reportedly producing hundreds of thousands of dollars in GI bill payments to private flight providers.

This raised valid concerns of how a student would be allowed to continue their aviation training of their academic institutions could not verify and document that the veteran possessed the aptitude to complete pilot training. But one must first ask- “where was the VA oversight?” Rather than confronting and addressing the actual problem (lack of VA oversight), Congress is proposing to implement broad-based funding cuts for veterans in aviation training, effectually treating an infection by removing a limb.

Legislation passed in the U.S. House last Congress GI Bill Education Quality Enhancement Act of 2015 despite opposition from national veteran groups who felt the VA oversight function should be repaired, and federal guidelines should be tightened, to prevent unnecessary cost over-runs or abuse of the benefit by private sector bad-actors motivated by profit. Rather than cut a GI Bill benefit for veterans, Congress needed to fix the true root of the problem, but chose not to.

Even though Boeing has projected that over the next 20 years the aviation industry will need to supply over 2 million commercial airline pilots, maintenance technicians and cabin crew Pilot and Technician Outlook 2017-2036, Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio) is sponsoring this same GI Bill cut — albeit dressed up as an improvement — but this time claims it is more palatable because it caps the value or allows for compressed benefits.

This proposed solution makes an obtuse attempt at suggesting the cost of obtaining a classroom education in aviation, combined with formal, in-flight training, should equal that of obtaining a classroom education at a community college; wholly ignoring the market and devaluing the public’s perception of a career in aviation. The legislation either caps the GI Bill at a level well beneath the cost to the veteran of completing the program, or requires the veteran to reduce the time they are eligible for GI Bill benefits from 36 months to 18 months and take a “double payment.”

This puts the veteran in a discouraging position of having to work to achieve a bachelor’s degree while simultaneously cramming in the hands-on and technical training for fixed wings. This would effectually, and entirely, eliminate helicopter training.

This education bill would place a bullseye on the full cost of aviation training and education benefits resulting in diverting funds away from these veterans’ education to other “priorities.” It also treats the GI Bill like “casino chips” to be consolidated beneath the static public university program costs by “gambling” on aviation programs and ultimately discouraging participation.

Civilian budget advisers in Congress that are behind this legislative concept have cleverly proposed that the bill not take effect until 2018 so they may soothe the burn and engage in political favors with national veteran's groups to request they not inform their members that these program benefits are on the chopping block.

Congress should preserve the funding and allow public universities to build and operate these programs under state and federal oversight, thus preventing the unfortunate anecdotes of 2015, yet allow veterans to receive appropriate funding to cover their training.

There have been proposals that would correct the VA oversight failings and preserve these aviation training benefits, but House Veterans Affairs committee advisors have turned a deaf ear, to date.

Ironically, for-profit colleges (unlike public universities) have been subjected to little or no regulation by Congress and have, in aggregate, acquired billions of dollars in GI Bill funding. Yet, many veterans who have completed these for-profit programs have failed to secure meaningful work.

Given this, it boggles the mind as to why lawmakers would seriously consider cutting these same benefits for public universities that provide excellent education and training for veterans in high value and in-demand aviation career opportunities?

The needs to be amended to address VA oversight issues and to empower veteran career opportunities, not diminish them. This is bad public policy and bad legislation for veterans and we hope policy makers in Washington will reverse this current course they have set upon.

Tracey Cooper-Harris is an Iraq War veteran with 12 yrs of service in the U.S. Army. She had done advocacy work on behalf of fellow veterans with Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America and Southern Poverty Law Center. Jason Johns is a Purple Heart veteran of the Iraq War, and president of  the NMLB Veterans Advocacy Group. Christopher Neiweem is an Iraq War veteran and president of Neiweem Group, a lobbying firm.