Military Families Deserve Education Choice: A Response to Carol Burris

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The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet recently reprinted an opinion piece highly critical of a proposal to give military families more options in how and where their children are educated. The author of the piece is Carol Burris, who runs the Network for Public Education. Unsurprisingly, the head of the Network for Public Education has qualms about providing military families options outside of the public education system.

As the director of education policy at The Heritage Foundation, where the proposal to enhance school choice for military families was developed, I wanted to clarify a few inaccuracies in Ms. Burris’s piece.

First, education savings accounts (ESAs), which this proposal would create, are not vouchers. Rather they are parent-controlled accounts into which the federal government would deposit a portion of the funds it would have been spent on their child in the district school. Although, like a voucher, ESAs can be used to pay for private school tuition, they can also be used by parents to pay for a host of other education options that are the right fit for their child. That could include tutoring, online learning, special education services and therapies, individual public school courses, and curricular materials, among other options.

For some children, such an option can be life-changing.

Take Arizona parents Kathy and Cristo Visser, whose son Jordan has cerebral palsy. Jordan’s district school didn’t offer the special education services he needed, so his parents used their state-funded ESA to pay for tutoring in their home and to pay for education therapy services that fit Jordan’s exact needs.

Or students like Hannah Waibel, who was incessantly bullied. Hannah was able to use a state tax-credit scholarship in Florida to transfer to a safe school that met her needs. Her grades improved dramatically, and now she is on track to graduate next year as valedictorian or salutatorian.

Burris notes that ESAs can be used for “privatized choice options” including “for-profit online schools” and “religious school expenses.” She fails to mention that they can be used for courses at traditional public schools and public charter schools, too. Bottom line: ESAs be used to fund any education option that is a good fit.

Such options are needed for all children but would be particularly useful for military families. Melinda Bargery, a mother of four, knows the unique challenges they face.  Her husband, Col. Chris Bargery, served in the Air Force for more than 28 years. During her husband’s 14 different assignments, her family had to move 21 times.

“It just took so much of our time, and we thought we were going to have to put him [their son] in classes like ‘Dress for Success’ rather than an AP [Advanced Placement] psych class or something like that,” she said. “So you just run up against situations like that over and over.”

She also said that having the option to access online courses would provide military families with consistency when they move from duty station to duty station.

Second, Burris contends that this proposal means “taking money away from public schools.” But funds would only follow students out of their assigned public schools if those schools were not a good fit. And if a school’s not a good fit, why should a student be trapped there?

If public schools are serving military families well, then what is the worry? If they aren’t, military families – indeed all families – deserve a choice. Opponents of education choice play mental gymnastics on this point: in the same breath, they argue both that families love their district schools while arguing that, if given a choice, there would be a mass exodus of students, devastating public education. Which is it?

Having the government assign your child to the nearest public school remains one of the few modern-day anachronisms. In 21st century America, we customize almost every other aspect of our lives. Why not education?

One must also wonder if opponents of the ESA proposal oppose the GI bill. The GI bill funds the service member, allowing him or her to choose which college to attend. Should service members be assigned a college if they receive GI benefits? Should college students only be allowed to use their Pell grants at state-assigned public colleges?

Of course not. This is, however, how we approach the education of military children.

Third, there is not “significant military family opposition” to the proposal as Burris alleges. There is opposition from special interest groups who exist to direct taxpayer dollars to government schools; it is their raison d'être. Organizationally they have a huge incentive and stake in keeping the status quo regarding Impact Aid, which is the funding source for this proposal.

That’s why we went directly to individual military families to hear their voices. And they love the idea.

A nationally representative poll conducted by Braun Research for EdChoice surveyed 1,200 active duty and veteran respondents. The military respondents were almost five times more likely to support ESAs than they were to oppose them (72% favor vs. 15% oppose). EdChoice takes its methods, transparency, and disclosures seriously, and this scientific poll strongly suggests military families would like to be in the drivers’ seat when it comes to their children’s education.

Finally, Burris quotes the National Military Family Association, which says: “Many school systems in heavily impacted areas would be completely defunded without the use of Impact Aid.” This is absolute nonsense.

The federal government uses taxpayer dollars to finance a small (roughly 8.5%) share of all K-12 education spending. Of that 8.5%, just two percent goes to Impact Aid. Overall, Impact Aid represents just 0.2 percent of the $648.6 billion spent on K-12 education annually.

The impact to school district budgets – even in heavily impacted districts – would be minuscule. As my colleague, Jonathan Butcher has demonstrated, even if 10 percent of students chose to use an ESA (a number yet to be seen in state programs, where uptake is closer to 1 – 2 percent), the share of overall district expenditures affected by Impact Aid would be 0.10 percent. In a heavily impacted district, that would increase to just 1.83 percent.

So much for Burris’s assertion that “the entire Impact Aid Program could be drained, the public schools that military children attend depleted of resources, and some highly Impact Aid-dependent public schools destroyed.” ESAs for military families would have a minuscule impact on district budgets (well within their normal fluctuations year-to-year) while being life-changing for many military families.

After numerous conversations with military families, it became clear to us that the education of their children was a kitchen table issue that dominates the conversation night-after-night.

And indeed, last year, Military Times conducted a survey of its readers that yielded striking findings: 35 percent of respondents said that dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to remain in or leave military service. What’s more, 40 percent of respondents said that they “have either declined or would decline a career-advancing job at a different installation to remain at their current military facility because of high performing schools.”

It is unacceptable that our service members should ever have to choose between serving our country and their children’s education. They sacrifice enough as it is.

ESAs will give military families the flexibility they need for their way of life. Modernizing the federal Impact Aid program to work more like the GI Bill would provide them the flexibility they need and deserve.

Lindsey M. Burke is The Heritage Foundation’s Will Skillman fellow in education and director of the think tank’s Center for Education Policy.

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