Breaking down barriers for American military families

Breaking down barriers for American military families
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Since moving to an all volunteer force, the United States military has had to pay special attention to recruitment and retention. Challenges in these areas are not getting easier. The Army missed its recruitment objective by 6,500 soldiers last year. This is quite inauspicious, coming at a time when the Pentagon wants to increase the Army by more than 24,000 soldiers. The Air Force faces a shortage of more than 1,200 pilots, which equals a loss of $12 billion in capital. The replacement pool for the military is also shrinking. Today, a majority of young Americans are ineligible to serve in the military, mostly due to inadequate education, criminality, and obesity.

To combat dwindling recruitment and retention, the Army is considering tailoring the military experience to the interests and talents of service members, allowing them to have a say in their assignments. Lieutenant General Thomas Seamands, the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, noted some obvious advantages of adopting a market based opportunity system for military service members. “It allows the individual officer to identify their skills, knowledge, attributes and talents and put those in the marketplace, and allows units to identify the officers they want,” he said.

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The Army is not alone in pursuing market based measures to improve retention and the experience while in uniform. The Air Force and Navy are exploring options to give airmen and sailors more time with their families to compete with the more flexible private sector where workers can spend time with family more easily. But boosting individual career satisfaction is not the sole solution. Over half of the modern military is married. As such, their family concerns, especially the education of their dependents, weigh heavily in their decisions whether to stay in uniform.

That is where a new proposal introduced in the House by Jim Banks and in the Senate by Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSwing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike House Dems move to give lawmakers a pay increase MORE, Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonOvernight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Overnight Defense: US to send 1K more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions | Iran threatens to break limit on uranium production in 10 days | US accuses Iran of 'nuclear blackmail' | Details on key defense bill amendments Iran announces it will exceed uranium stockpile restraints of nuclear deal MORE, and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottOnly black GOP senator Tim Scott calls reparations a 'non-starter' Only black GOP senator Tim Scott calls reparations a 'non-starter' On The Money: Trump weighs emergency declaration for Mexico tariffs | GOP senators look to rein in Trump on trade | Powell says Fed may cut rates if trade war hurts economy MORE comes into play. The proposal would give education savings accounts to children of active duty military families. Extending school choice to military families is a policy that could pay major dividends by alleviating pressing recruitment and retention issues that create significant challenges for our armed forces.

There is currently a gross dissatisfaction surrounding education options for military dependents. The children of families connected to the military are typically assigned to the public school nearest to the assigned base of the parent, and 80 percent of military children attend public schools. But only 34 percent of active duty military parents in an Ed Choice survey thought that the local public school was the best fit for their children.

In fact, a Military Times survey found that 35 percent of its readers, which included service members from all military branches, have either refused promotions or considered leaving the military altogether because of poor education choices for their children. Enhanced education opportunities through military education savings accounts can help soften the retention problem in the armed forces. Education savings accounts would empower parents to tailor the education of their children to their particular needs.

The proposal would provide an education savings account of $6,000 to children of military families. They could use this to pay for private school tuition, online learning, curriculum, textbooks, and special education services if needed. Families could roll over unused funds from year to year, and could roll over unused funds into college savings accounts.

Although this is a relatively new idea, 72 percent of military personnel said they supported it. Such a policy would provide military families with the flexibility required for their children to find learning options that are the right fit for them, given their unique situations. It also aligns the interests of military families and with the goals of an efficient, high performing, and dynamic armed forces. Military parents would no longer have to make a hard choice between serving their country and educating their children.

Pentagon leaders have rightly recognized that market based options can improve the workplace. Now they have the chance to expand that logic to education. Military education savings accounts would allow parents to have real control over where they children learn rather than having their children trapped in the school nearest their duty station, a shift aligned with the armed services broader push for a tailored military experience. Military service members are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. We should not ask them to sacrifice the future of their children as well.

Frederico Bartels is a policy analyst for defense budgeting in the Center for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation. Jude Schwalbach is a policy researcher in the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation.