Will Proposed Education Savings Accounts Help or Hurt Military Kids?

Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos implied she supported using $1.3 billion in public funds, from Impact Aid distributed by the Department of Education, to provide school choice to active duty military children. Backed by the Heritage Foundation, the plan would allow military families to set up education savings accounts (ESAs), funded with Impact Aid money from their child's public school, that they could then draw on to pay for a broad variety of educational needs if they choose not to have their children attend that school.

On the surface, this might seem like a good deal for military families. But there is more to the story. To begin with, repurposing $1.3 billion in public funds should get everyone's attention. Not all schools serving military children are eligible for Impact Aid, so this benefit for military families is not universally applicable. Impact Aid funds are concentrated based on proximity to federal properties (e.g. military installations) and number of federally connected students. That means under Heritage's proposal, not all kids could benefit, and the education of those who weren't participating could be negatively affected. Some states already fund school choice through ESAs, but it seems the potential models, outcomes, and oversight could vary widely. And, as we have seen in other areas of education, these variations provide seams for exploitation, resulting in larger bills for the government.

Many veteran service organizations have had to battle to restore funding to veterans who received inadequate or incomplete educations from unscrupulous schools vying for Post-9/11 GI Bill dollars. Generally, when government money funds an activity, unethical players will appear to make a profit. It is possible increased federal funding for ESAs (via Impact Aid) could lead to similar transgressions, with parties providing less than appropriate levels of education and soaking up federal money, unless there is significant federal oversight/regulation-a costly burden in itself.

EdChoice, a survey organization, provided the data used to support the Heritage plan. When they rolled out the survey last summer, MOAA asked about the organization's familiarity with military families and their specific challenges; EdChoice staff admitted they are not typically engaged in surveying at the national level or among the military population. EdChoice and the Heritage Foundation arrived at their conclusions on the basis of insufficient data; their survey should not be used as a data point for creating federal policy. MOAA and other attendees with expertise in military child education shared many suggestions to help improve their survey.

This kind of policy change could have negative ramifications, with a very limited positive impact. This issue is exceedingly complex with many variables (locality, school options, educational shortcomings, the individual needs of each child, and the high mobility of military families). There is not enough good information about where military children don't have access to solid educational choices, free or tuition-based, to make the right impact. The work that led to this proposed realignment of $1.3 billion is insufficient. Our government can do better.