Military Children Are Caught in a Battle over Government Funding

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Coins and a banknote in a glass jar are placed on a textbook. (Getty Images file)

Jennifer Barnhill is a freelance writer with a focus on military family advocacy, a Navy spouse of 15 years and mother of three. She is the chief operating officer for Partners in PROMISE, a Secure Families Initiative volunteer and serves on the National Military Spouse Network's Day of Advocacy steering committee.

The Biden administration recently released its fiscal 2022 Discretionary Spending Request, which asks for increased special education funding. But to understand why special education needs this jump-start, we must look at the history of military special education. 

I recently wrote an article for Military.com about why military kids are so vital to fixing special education that only scratched the surface of the military-civilian connection. A recent article, "The Truth About Impact Aid & All the Lies You've Been Sold," released by Military Kids-Special Education Alliance founder Josephine Amato, sheds even more light on the subject.

In her article, Amato discusses the inextricable link between impact aid funding and racism and the impact it has on military-connected students' access to public education. 

Following the Funds

"Every year Title VII of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allocates billions of dollars to support military-connected students' equal access to education," Amato writes. This allocation is commonly referred to as impact aid.

Impact aid is funding allocated for highly mobile military children and other "at-risk" student populations. Amato outlines how this money is not being utilized to support military students in the way it was originally intended. She theorizes that school districts have latched onto one aspect of impact aid: the idea that the funds offset the financial drain military communities place upon communities. But they have forgotten its intent: "to help military students meet the same challenging state academic standards."

As a reporter, I know the power of words and the power marketing has over the actions of others. A sensational headline grabs attention, but a consistent message repeated again and again has staying power. 

A Fight for Power: Federal vs. State vs. Local Government

Military students are caught in the middle of a battle over government funds. In her article, Amato cites localities framing military-connected students and their presence as a financial drain upon local economies. "In 2020, Virginia Beach Public Schools Board Member Beverly Anderson went as far as to state, 'Those [military installation] houses are not taxed. We don't get real estate taxes from those areas and that's what the whole thing [impact aid] is all about.'"

At some point, this might have been a valid argument, when the influx of cash paid for infrastructure. But if the bill has been paid, should the states still be the cashing checks?

Today in established communities, military families are not a drain on resources; in fact, they are an asset that helps augment local economies. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "The DoD contributes billions of dollars each year to state economies through the operation of military installations. This spending helps sustain local communities." They pay rent. Some buy homes where they hope to retire one day. They work and spend money in the local economy. Jobs are created, and lucrative government contract funds flow. 

Instead of "If you build it, they will come," it's really "if the military comes, they will also build."

As a result of the value added by the military presence, Amato highlights in her article that -- without proof in the form of accountability in reporting the use of funds from school districts -- it is unclear whether military students are receiving the funding intended to support them. Students don't see benefits if districts are treating impact aid funding like discretionary petty cash. 

Protecting Military Students from Discrimination

Did you know that one byproduct of impact aid funding was correcting segregation? In her research, Amato discusses how impact aid started to force resistant school districts that accepted Title VII funds to desegregate. This requirement would allow minority students to attend previously segregated schools to mirror the newly desegregated military. 

"In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took action to ban federal aid from being utilized for segregated public schools operated by or on US bases. The Commissioner of Education under President Eisenhower, Earl J. McGrath, saw Public Law 874's purpose in the same light," Amato writes in her article.

One desegregation case showed that federal education guidelines can be enforced when a school district accepts federal funds. In the United States v. County School Bd., Prince George County, Va., 221 F. Supp. 93 (E.D. Va. 1963), the United States argued that federal funding constituted a contract between the receiving school and the U.S. government on behalf of the military-connected students they represented. When the school district followed state law and did not accept black students, it violated that contract. 

Today, discrimination is seen in inequity of educational services provided to military special education students. COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation further. Amato, like many special education parents and advocates, is frustrated by this complex system of funding and state vs. federal law. But through that frustration and complexity, her message could not be more clear:  

Funds that are intended to benefit military students should benefit military students.

On this we agree. We hope accountability is on the way with the 2021 National Defense Authorization (NDAA), which outlined a Government Accountability Office study that will determine whether this funding finds its way into special education classrooms and the classrooms of all military-connected students.   

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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