ESAs for Military Families: Too Good to Be True

This article by Brooke Goldberg originally appeared on the Military Officers Association of America’s (MOAA) website.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' support of the idea of education savings accounts (ESAs) for military children. The plan is now backed up with H.R. 5199, the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018, introduced by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), and a companion bill introduced by Senators Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

 

Why is MOAA against this? Because this is the wrong answer to a real problem.

The Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018 promises options, but it provides them to a woefully low number of military families. All military children deserve to attend schools that meet the need for a free and public education. When and where this isn't the case, we must ensure a solution. This bill leaves too many military families without any more viable choices than they already have.

Funding choice for a few at the expense of others is not a solution.

Here's a closer look at what the legislation would do.

 

Will your family benefit from this program? It depends.

First, it's important to understand the legislation only creates two categories of eligibility for these ESAs for active duty military children whose parents choose to remove them from public schools. Families of the reserve components could be eligible if a parent is activated, but National Guard officers are explicitly excluded from eligibility under activation.

 

Category 1.

Families living in a highly impacted local educational agency (LEA, also known as a school district) could be eligible for a $4,500 deposit into an ESA.

 

However, there are only 29 highly impacted LEAs (in a total of 12 states) out of the 1,073 LEAs receiving some sort of impact aid.

 

Category 2.

In the House version of the bill, this refers to families living on a military installation. In the Senate version of the bill, it refers to families in an LEA that receives impact aid. Category 2 families would be eligible for a $2,500 deposit into an ESA.

 

There are more than 14,000 school districts across the U.S. Only 1,073 of them receive impact aid, and some of those might not be educating military children, but other federally connected students. This proposal would reduce funding for those schools and give it to individual military families not in those schools.

 

Are military families leaving the service because of the poor educational choices available to them? Yes.

The $1.166 billion of funding (requested by the Department of Education for 2018) for this bill is not enough to help every military family who might require it. For this ESA plan to work, it must exclude most military families.

For example, if you're a military recruiter living outside one of the 29 highly impacted LEAs or far away from a military installation or in one of the nearly 13,000 school districts that does not receive impact aid, your family will not be eligible to receive an ESA from the federal government.

In addition to there not being enough money to go around, the bill prevents additional appropriations from being allocated to impact aid. This bill is built to help very few military families at the expense of every federally connected student in the U.S.

 

Will your local school be hurt by removing your child's allocation of impact aid? Yes.

In this legislation, ESAs are funded from the requested $1.166 billion in the basic support fund of impact aid. This money is intended to offset expenses for all federally connected students, which includes students who live on federal property, students who live on certain American Indian lands, students who reside in low-rent housing projects, and students who are the children of various other federal employees not living on federal land.

Basic support funds are used for an LEA's general expenses such as teacher salaries, technology, equipment, and construction projects. Every student who leaves a public school in an LEA receiving impact aid reduces the funds available in that account for division among all other LEAs relying on it. Military children and other federally connected students still attending schools in that LEA will see funding reduced for their education.

 

Will the money in this ESA improve your child's educational opportunities? It depends.

The amount of funding that could be provided to most eligible families is incredibly low for most educational options. A military family that already cannot afford private education would be hard pressed to find a school with annual tuition lower than $2,500, which is what most eligible families would receive.

Take the schools around Fort Sill as an example. The Lawton, Okla., school district is not a highly impacted LEA, so no family in that area would qualify for $4,500. Under the Senate language, if a family elected to take their child out of public school, they would receive $2,500 for the year in their ESA. Under House language, they would only receive this funding if they lived on base.

Here's the price of tuition for some of the local private schools:

  • Trinity Christian Academy, Pre-K through 8th grade: $3000-$4,400/year
  • Lawton Academy of Arts & Sciences, Pre-K through 12th grade: $4650-$5,500
  • St. Mary's Catholic School, Pre-K through 8th grade: $3,600-$4,200

And these schools are on the low end of the tuition spectrum - as students get older, tuition can cost upwards of $10,000 per year. For families already facing increased fees and copays from TRICARE and decreased housing allowances over the last five years, who are trying to contribute to their Thrift Savings Plan for a full match, the promise of federal money that does not cover the full cost of a replacement option is a financial burden. This plan might still leave eligible families out of reach of viable alternatives to public education.

Additionally, while both Rep. Banks and the Heritage Foundation claim this plan will maximize academic achievement, it preserves the autonomy of education providers. Remember when many for-profit educational institutions made hollow promises to veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, taking veterans' valuable educational dollars and leaving them with an incomplete or inadequate education?

This plan does nothing to keep the same like-minded profiteers at bay, nor does it have measures to ensure the quality of education purchased with those tax dollars other than a plan to provide a website and a hotline for families to report bad actors during and after the fact. It would be gross negligence to remove funding from K-12 schools only to see a repeat of the GI Bill debacle that cost the U.S. government millions.

Military families already have a difficult time holding schools accountable for a free and public education, and there are federal mechanisms in place to do so. Once military families remove their children from public schools, they do not have the protection of federal laws for children with disabilities or the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children.

This legislation offers too little, for too few, effectively avoiding the real problem - the need to resource strengthen public school districts for military children everywhere.

-- Brooke Goldberg is director of Government Relations for MOAA.

This article, ESA for Military Families: Too Good to Be True, originally appeared on the Military Officers Association of America’s (MOAA) website. MOAA is the nation’s largest and most influential association of military officers.

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