As an institution, the military has historically been an unlikely laboratory for progressive policy experiments, though it’s helped pioneer state-run universal child care, socialized medicine, universal access to higher education, and mandatory race and gender desegregation. But now it’s fast becoming a petri dish for a conservative dream: school privatization.
The Trump administration and Republican “reformers” want to strip funds from public schools serving military-base communities, while imposing a voucher scheme to fund private schools as a “free-market” alternative to standard public education.
The Education Department is reportedly pushing for the defunding of a relatively little-known program known as Impact Aid, which subsidizes communities surrounding military bases, where the federal government plays a major role in local governance. Military-base communities revolve around federally operated, tax-exempt sites and their personnel, so additional subsidies offset the lack of resources that would otherwise be provided from local property taxes, including school funds for military families. Under education legislation recently introduced by Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) in the House and by Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Tim Scott (R-SC) in the Senate, the funds would be diverted into an untold number of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which would enable families to, in theory, pool savings for tuition for private schools and other services. Eligible families could obtain as much as $4,500 if they live in high-needs Impact Aid districts considered “heavily impacted,” or $2,500 for military families outside those areas. An estimated 126,000 elementary- and high-school students could be affected, and though participation is voluntary, the diversion of Impact Aid would effectively open about $1.3 billion in federal funds to private education.
Though military communities have long relied on Impact Aid to supplement critical funding gaps for military-serving schools, the “reform” plan would leave children of parents serving Uncle Sam to fend for themselves as Washington withdraws funds from their schools; the “choice” for their parents would be whether to trade an under-resourced local school for an unregulated private one with an untested voucher scheme.
The plan, based on a model proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation, has been criticized by veterans’ groups like the Military Coalition and National Military Family Association, which note in an analysis of the voucher proposal that the funds would fall well short of a basic private-school tuition (roughly $10,000), leaving families to either make up the difference with their own funds or go for the lowest-price option, both of which would likely lack the level of standards and oversight that currently governs state-controlled schools. Such a drastic transition, advocates say, would hurt both the school system and students, whether they transfer or stick with regular schools. NMFA government-relations deputy director Eileen Huck says that the main concern is how the diversion of Impact Aid into a relatively small number of districts would transform “a program that supports the majority of military-connected students into a voucher that would benefit only a few.”
The Heritage Foundation scheme was picked up by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as a small-scale way to introduce more vouchers into the system quietly—because voucherization, which is typically tied to federal funds for religious schools, has often provoked huge public opposition. The ESA program is billed as a savings account, like an individual retirement plan, so it offers somewhat more flexibility—and, in a sense, even less regulation—than a traditional tuition voucher. As Heritage points out, the funds could also be spent on tutoring, private transportation, “individual classes and extracurricular activities, textbooks, computers,” or even college-savings or vocational programs. DeVos is a longtime champion of private Christian education, as well as a booster for privatization in both K–12 and higher education.
The Education Savings Account initiative parallels another controversial federally led privatization scheme, also promoted by Senator Scott, which currently provides vouchers to thousands of low-income students in the underfunded District of Columbia school district. Scott issued a resolution earlier this year urging lawmakers to “empower our families and children with the ability to choose the type of school that best fits their individual needs and learning styles.”
But do private-school vouchers fit military communities? For many, exchanging their neighborhood school for a voucher plan seems an unfair trade. Last December, a coalition led by NMFA, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, and others wrote in a joint statement that Impact Aid supports critical school functions, including school counselling, professional development, “transition centers and student-to-student welcome programs in order to support military children as they cope with challenges such as frequent moves and prolonged separation from their service member parent…. Proposals to divert Impact Aid…are short sighted and will only reduce opportunities for all students in these school districts.”
Generally, as vouchers have proved politically unpalatable, most privatization programs have involved more hybrid approaches, such as charter schools that offer the benefits of private-sector, corporate-style management, while still maintaining taxpayer funding. Voucher programs, meanwhile, have also proved lackluster in producing the promised academic “fix” for poor students while also fueling school segregation. A new study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project reveals that, nationwide, vouchers have proven to be relatively negative for children already experiencing the worst academic gaps prior to school transition. In other words, “inner city” kids aren’t fixed by private schools; they’re hurt by them.
Moreover, a military base is not your average neighborhood. Though the ESA is not a direct voucher for specific private schools, no “savings account” can address the systemic deficits besieging Impact Aid districts. Children of service members are coping with cycles of constant transition, be it from war-related trauma in their families and medical burdens, or the social needs of communities struggling with housing and income instability. Spouses of military families today face extraordinarily high unemployment rates and generally have to move every few years.
As these children struggle for decent schooling, the federal government has already been failing on other social supports for military families, from providing decent medical care to protecting them from predatory lenders, while breaking with a once-ironclad social contract for free education by subjecting veterans to predatory for-profit college schemes. If the White House wants to thank them for their service, then “supporting the troops” shouldn’t mean abandoning the responsibility to educate their kids.