WASHINGTON – The conservative Heritage Foundation is pushing to allow 800,000 military children to use federal tax dollars for private education, a proposal that comes as President Donald Trump seeks to make good on his promise to dramatically expand school choice nationwide.
Under the Heritage proposal, military children would be able to elect to leave their public schools and instead receive a lump sum – an “education savings account” – that they could put toward private school tuition, tutoring or online school.
The proposal would require redirecting money from $1.3 billion in “impact aid” funds that currently go to support public school districts near military bases and tribal lands, spending that has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. But Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at Heritage, argues that it is a way to support military families – a matter of national defense, she said – and would dramatically expand the universe of private-school choice.
Nearly 450,000 children use public funds to pay for private education nationwide. Heritage would like to see all 800,000 school-age children of active-duty families eligible for the same, including in states that don’t allow private-school choice. About 750,000 of those children attend Defense Department-run schools on base or local public schools off base, according to a policy brief the foundation published Friday. “That’s a lot of kids,” Burke said.
The foundation also supports extending education savings accounts to tribal children, but that’s not the focus of the new policy.
Heritage has played a key role in shaping Trump administration policy ideas – including the president’s proposed budget, which would slash discretionary spending for science, education and other social services. A spokeswoman for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did not respond to a request for comment.
Whatever the administration’s position, it is not clear whether there is an appetite in Congress to create a new private-school choice program, particularly one that would come at the expense of local school districts.
Congress created impact aid funds to compensate public schools for the cost of operating in areas with a lot of military or tribal property – which cannot be taxed, and therefore provide no revenue to schools. More than 1,200 districts receive some share of the money; some of them, particularly in tribal areas, rely heavily on impact aid funds to operate. Lawmakers have repeatedly denied requests from both the Obama and Trump administrations to reduce impact aid spending; senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle signed letters this spring calling the money “the very lifeblood” that allows some districts to operate.
Hilary Goldmann, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said turning impact aid into a voucher or education savings account program “completely misses the point.” It’s a tax-fairness initiative, she said, and is meant to “serve all the children in the district – not a certain subset.”
Burke disagrees, arguing that the program was always meant to pay for the education of military and tribal children. But it’s not clear whether military families even want this option – particularly given the lump sums they would receive under the Heritage proposal, as little as $4,607 for a student who leaves a public school in a state without its own choice program. Burke said Heritage is planning to survey military families this summer in cooperation with EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group.
“I think it’s really important to hear from military families themselves about how they would feel about actually being given control over their dollars that their children are generating,” she said.
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