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.”