Our soldiers deserve educational freedom

By Larry Sand
June 5, 2018

In spite of teacher union attempts to deny them, Education Savings Accounts for military families are needed.

A bill proposed by Congressman Jim Banks (R-IN) directs the Department of Education to establish a program that would “provide children with parents on active duty in the uniformed services with funds for specified educational purposes.” The proposed law would allow military parents to establish Education Savings Accounts, which would enable them to use public funds for private school tuition, online learning programs, tutoring, etc. While ESAs are a good idea for everyone, they are especially important for military families, many of whom move around frequently, and should not be subjected to our stifling, antiquated, zip-code monopoly education system.

Upon introducing the bill in March, Banks penned a piece for The Wall Street Journal in which he  wrote, “A 2017 survey of Military Times readers showed that educational opportunities play an important role in determining whether a military family accepts a particular assignment—or even remains in the service at all. Thirty-five percent of service members have considered leaving the military because of the limited education options available, and 40% have either declined or would decline a career-advancing opportunity at a different installation if it meant their child would have to leave a high-performing school.” We cannot afford to lose our experienced soldiers for want of an easy fix.

According to an EdChoice poll, 72 percent of military respondents were in favor of the ESA program, after having it described to them, while just 15 percent opposed it.

The idea is not particularly new. The Senate Armed Services Committee considered a proposal to provide military families with tuition vouchers in 2009. While the idea enjoyed military support at the time, pressure from the powerful National Education Association helped quash the plan.

In 2012, researcher Vicki Alger wrote a report for the Independent Women’s Forum in which she explained that military ESAs “would help expand education options for children without adding costs to national and state budgets, and by facilitating the use of private options rather than adding students to the public school rolls, they could reduce the burden on the state.” However, her sage advice didn’t lead anywhere.

Which brings us to 2018. Just who is fighting against the Banks bill now? Interestingly, a coalition of military associations has come out against the legislation. As Pacific Research Institute scholar Lance Izumi writes, “Their letter to lawmakers, sadly, puts the concerns of school district bureaucracies above the clear needs and preferences of military families.” But this seems to be a top down decision. As Izumi states, “Evidently, these military associations, which proclaim that they represent more than five million current and former service members and their families, forgot to ask service members about what they think.”

But of course, the most potent force to deny military ESAs is, again, NEA. On its website, the union refers to the bill as a “voucher scheme,” and an “enemy of public schools,” and proceeds to launch into a frothing-at-the mouth, turf-protecting tirade, painting anything outside the realm of unionized, government-run, zip-code mandated schools as the work of the devil – or worse – Betsy DeVos. NEA claims that the bill would have a devastating effect on school districts which rely on federal Impact Aid. But as Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher points out, the most “heavily impacted” school districts would lose between a meager 0.18 percent and 1.83 percent of their federal revenue.

One very perplexing part of NEA’s response to the soldier choice bill is the fact that the union has been a proud supporter of the G.I. Bill, the country’s first significant educational voucher program. Signed into law in 1944, the G.I. Bill is nothing more than a “choice” program for soldiers, allowing them to attend just about any college they want – public, private, religious or secular. In fact, not only has NEA been a supporter of the G.I Bill, but the NEA Legislative Commission worked for its passage in 1944.

So NEA supports military vouchers for college, but not k-12. Maybe one day the union will get around to explaining this inconsistency. (Don’t hold your breath.) But in the meantime, Jim Banks’ bill should become law. The people who risk their lives to protect our country need educational freedom. It’s the very least we can do for them and their families.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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