When American servicemen returned home after World War II, a grateful nation supported the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly referred to as the G.I. Bill). Among the benefits was a new provision to pay for the college expenses of veterans.
This proved enormously popular — and with good reason. The federal funding offered through the G.I. Bill follows a service member to any college he or she chooses. The same holds true for all other federal student aid for college. The Pell Grant program, for example, which provides funding to lower-income individuals, can be used at any accredited college or university.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for their children at the K-12 level. Why?
The largest federal program providing funding for the education of children from military families — the federal Impact Aid program — delivers $1.3 billion annually to support their education and the education of other federally connected children. But it delivers those funds to government school districts, to which students are then assigned.
Simply assigning children to district schools when their parents are assigned to their next duty station does a disservice to our nation’s service members. Why offer our veterans so much flexibility through the G.I. Bill, then provide no real options for their families if the public schools are underperforming or unsafe?
Worse, this lack of education choice has created retention and recruitment problems for the U.S. military. According to a survey conducted by Military Times, 35 percent of active duty military families say that dissatisfaction with their children’s education was a significant factor in their decision to remain or leave military service.
What’s more, the schools attended by most children of military families don’t match the schooling options they would prefer. A nationally representative survey of military families conducted by EdChoice found that, although just 33 percent of military-connected respondents said they would prefer to send their child to a public school, 80 percent of military-connected children attend public schools. So more than two-thirds would choose something other than a public school, yet that’s overwhelmingly where their children have to go to school.
The U.S. education system is failing to prepare students to pursue their career goals, including joining the military. A breathtaking 71 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds who would like to join the armed services don’t qualify for military service. A big part of that is education, as many are unable to pass the Armed Forces Qualification Test.
Military families, like their civilian counterparts, deserve choice in education for their children. 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 program.
The federal government’s exclusive responsibility and mandate to oversee national defense and the military extends to military-related issues that impact education, creating an opportunity to advance education choice for military families.
One promising path forward for creating choice for military families includes modernizing the federal Impact Aid program so it functions more like the G.I. Bill, with education benefits for military-connected children following them to schools of choice. Instead of simply funneling funding to district schools, and then assigning children to those schools, active-duty military families should be able to access those funds in the form of an education savings account (ESA).
ESAs enable families to use their child’s share of education funding to pay for education options that work for them, including private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies if needed, private tutoring, textbooks, and any other education-related service, product, or provider. Leftover ESA funds at the end of the year can even be rolled over year-to-year.
The same EdChoice survey found that 75 percent of active duty military respondents supported the idea of education savings accounts, and 72 percent supported a theoretical congressional proposal to create such an option.
The flexibility of the G.I. Bill has been widely popular ever since it was established in 1944. Applying the same flexibility to funding for children from military families at the K-12 level will create peace of mind for active duty families, confident that their next assignment will come with education choice for their children.
Our veterans have sacrificed so much for us. Surely they deserve this change for their families.
Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education and the Director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation www.Heritage.org.