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At Fort Bragg, DeVos talks up school vouchers for military families

This photo taken Monday, March 27, 2017, shows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waiting for President Donald Trump to arrive to sign various bills in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
This photo taken Monday, March 27, 2017, shows Education Secretary Betsy DeVos waiting for President Donald Trump to arrive to sign various bills in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
By Valerie Strauss Washington Post

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visited a Department of Defense primary school at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and told parents stationed there that the Trump administration wants to provide vouchers for them to send their children to any school they want.

Not everybody at Fort Bragg was thrilled with the news.

There are more than 73,000 students in Department of Defense schools in 168 schools in 11 foreign countries, seven U.S. states, Guam, and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Defense Education Activity, an agency that runs pre-K through 12th grade educational programs for stationed military families. At Fort Bragg, there are eight schools that run from pre-K to eighth grade, with students attending high school off the military installation.

DeVos visited Kimberly Hampton Primary School on Monday, stopping in several classrooms, reading to students, and meeting with schools officials and parents stationed at the military installation.

The visit occurred at the start of the Month of the Military Child. More than 80 percent of military-connected students are educated in public schools, but DeVos supports expanding options to public schools, including vouchers that use public money to pay for private school tuition. That’s what she talked about when she went to Fort Bragg.

The Fayetteville Observer quoted DeVos as saying that the Traump administration was looking at policies that would give flexibility to U.S. military families in choosing a high school for their children:

“I think there are a number of opportunities first of all to really support the implementation of the (DOD schools) curriculum that are transferable from base to base, school to school. I heard from parents and educators alike how important that is when a child moves from school to school to be able to know they can transition well. I’ve also heard a bit more about the challenge when, particularly students at this base, experience when they go into high school they go to a variety of area schools that not necessarily all of them work for every child, and so looking at policies that would perhaps empower parents to be able to choose the right setting for their child. Sen. Tim Scott has some legislation introduced in that regard and we’ll be looking at supporting policies like that.”

Scott, R-S.C., has introduced a bill in the Senate called the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act, which would fund, among other things, vouchers for students who live on U.S. military bases, as well students with disabilities and those from low-income families. Those vouchers would permit families to use them for tuition and other fees at private schools. The bill would fund elementary school students up to $8,000 for elementary and high school students up to $12,000 annually.

The Observer quoted Hampton PTA President Jennifer Hamner as saying that the consensus of parents at Fort Bragg was that they liked the Department of Defense schools on the military base and want a high school to be added to the schools already there. She said:

“It’s concerning the difference in standards. I feel like public, private and charter schools need to be playing by the same rules. I think a lot of it is, we’re pretty happy with (DOD schools) and making sure the public system is up to snuff for our military children.”

The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools and a subgroup called the Military Impacted Schools Association issued a statement expressing strong concerns about DeVos’s comments, saying that military families want more investment in public schools, not vouchers.

Kyle Fairbairn, executive director of the Military Impacted Schools Association said:

“Rather than distributing scarce resources in the form of a new voucher program, the federal government should be making good on its obligation to all federally impacted school districts. The CHOICE Act would set back education for military-connected students, period.”

Hilary Goldmann, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said:

“On the first week of the Month of the Military Child, NAFIS believes Secretary DeVos should be focused on investing in public schools – those in which the majority of military-connected children attend – instead of praising a bill that would drain dollars away from those schools. The CHOICE Act fails to recognize the fact that public school districts that educate military connected students, including Blue Ribbon Schools, are devoted to and successful in meeting the academic and emotional needs of this unique student body.

“Supporting military families and the unique needs of military-connected students is a top priority for public school districts and states. For example, the Military Interstate Children’s Compact, that has been adopted by all 50 states and Washington, D.C., addresses educational transition challenges encountered by military families including enrollment, placement, attendance, eligibility and graduation. The Compact only applies to public schools.

“Impact Aid is the Federal government’s tax payment for educating military-connected students attending public schools around the country. The program is funded at less than 60 percent of the need formula established in law. NAFIS is concerned about the consequences a voucher program would have on the Impact Aid program and the tax burden on residents in federally impacted communities.”

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