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Money for School? Bill Would Give Military Families Cash

 Students of Friendly Hills Elementary School listen to a Marine with Marine Training Unit read books to them at Friendly Hills Elementary School in Joshua Tree, California. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Francisco J. Britoramirez)
Students of Friendly Hills Elementary School listen to a Marine with Marine Training Unit read books to them at Friendly Hills Elementary School in Joshua Tree, California. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Francisco J. Britoramirez)

Military families who don't want their kids in local public schools would be given cash for choosing an alternate school option under a proposal introduced on Capitol Hill this month.

The idea, first floated by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., would up give to $4,500 per child to families who want to use alternative schooling options, such as private schools. The money would be placed in a Education Savings Accounts (ESA).

The bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, and will likely be rolled into the annual National Defense Authorization Act process. It has also received the support of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and has a companion bill in the Senate.

Right now local schools receive federal funding, known as Impact Aid, based on the number of military children who use them. Schools are typically funded through property taxes, and the Impact Aid to make up for the hit that income might be taking by having federal families in the area or large military bases, which are not locally taxed.

The ESAs would be funded by syphoning off Impact Aid funding for each child who attends an alternate school instead of a school with the local system. How much they receive -- between $2,500 and $4,500 -- would be based on the size of the military community in the area. The Heritage Foundation estimates that the parents of about 126,000 would be eligible.

Officials see the proposed program as giving greater schooling options to military kids.

"We know that they're so mobile generally that it is difficult for those kids, moving from base to base to base, or from city to city to city, to have continuity in their education. An education savings account would afford them a much different dynamic and approach to be able to get their education in the way that best works for them," DeVos said at a conference in February.

But not everyone agrees this is the best option. While school flexibility is a good thing, and establishing ESAs could be helpful, advocates with the National Military Family Association (NMFA) said sourcing the money from Impact Aid is the wrong approach.

That method, they said, will hurt military children who still go to the schools the funding is no longer assisting. And since even $4,500 is only a fraction of the cost of private schooling in most areas, the measure could result in even more families with higher incomes fleeing the school districts, leaving lower income students behind.

"NMFA does not oppose school choice options, however we strongly oppose proposals that would transition Impact Aid into a voucher program for military-connected kids -- especially since there is no scenario where every military kid would receive those funds," they said in a blog post on their website.

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