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Betsy DeVos Wants Education Savings Accounts for Military Families

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos signaled that the Trump administration will turn its school choice focus to a group of students the federal government has a special responsibility for: children connected to the military.

Education savings accounts for the children of military personnel is an idea that's being championed by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. But some advocates for military families have been cautious about embracing the idea.

DeVos said in a Thursday interview with Heritage's Kay Coles at the Conservative Political Action Conference that there's clearly an appetite among military families for more choice.

"I know for a fact that for more than a third of active-duty military families that have school-age children, their decisions where they go, or where they don't go, or whether they continue to serve, hinge very heavily on the opportunities they have for their children's education," DeVos said, appearing to cite a survey published by the Military Times. "So I think we have an opportunity in that regard to empower them with some more of those choices." 

DeVos added that parents could use these ESAs, which could be financed using money that goes to the school to which they're now assigned, to ensure their children receive a high-quality, "customized", education as they move from "base to base to base and city to city to city."

The money could be used at traditional public schools, charter schools, for online learning, or some combination of the three, the secretary said. She did not specifically mention private schools. 

President Donald Trump ran on creating a $20 billion voucher program. But so far, Republicans in Congress haven't been willing to embrace federal funding for private school choice, beyond a change in the recent tax-overhaul bill allowing families to use 529 college-savings plans for K-12 tuition.

That's partly because many in the GOP worry about federal overreach, even in the service of school choice, a policy that most Republicans favor. But focusing on a particular group of students that the feds have a special responsibility for may be an easier sell. 

To be sure, DeVos made it clear that she still wants to see other choice initiatives. She applauded states for expanding choice, and said the federal government would like to partner with them to take those efforts further. 

DeVos wasn't specific about exactly where the funding for these new ESAs for military families would come from. Her spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hill, said later that, "The Secretary wants our nation's military connected families to have the freedom they deserve to send their children to a school that meets their unique needs and learning style. There are several pieces of legislation that could make that happen and she looks forward to working with Congress on this issue."   

So which proposals might be DeVos be thinking of?

Last year, the Heritage Foundation pitched turning the $1.3 billion in funding for Impact Aid program into an ESA program. Impact Aid helps school districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a military base or Native American reservation, and it enjoys bipartisan support in Congress.

The proposal appears to have gotten some attention from the White House and could be introduced as a bill soon. 

But groups representing military families and Impact Aid districts—including the Military Child Education Coalition, the Military Officers Association of America, National Military Family Association, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, and the Military Impacted Schools Association—are vehemently opposed to the idea. They argue it would hurt public schools serving vulnerable populations.

"Proposals to divert Impact Aid from schools that educate concentrations of military-connected students are short sighted and will only reduce opportunities for all students in these school districts," they said in a statement released in December. (Read the full statement here.) 

Another possibility: using Pentagon dollars to create an ESA program, which might be operated by the Defense Department. For instance, legislation introduced Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., would create a pilot program on at least five bases. Military families would be eligible for scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary and $12,000 for high school under his proposal.

There have also been efforts to add similar language to defense bills. But so far, none of them have passed.

Advocates for military families say they'll take a close and cautious look at any proposals released.

Mary M. Keller, the president and CEO of the Military Child Education Coalition, said in a recent interview that her organization is in favor of "informed choice" for military parents. But it wants to make sure choice proposals won't leave out students with special needs, and will benefit low-income families as well as wealthier students. She also wants to see significant oversight and transparency so that parents can make an informed decision.

What's more, Keller has big practical questions, about things like transportation and how vouchers would work if a child switched schools in the middle of the year because his or her parents' assignment changed.

During her interview at CPAC, DeVos also touched on the Every Student Succeeds Act, the need to bolster career and technical education, and other topics. She asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the last week's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., but did not specifically address school safety issues. 

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 22. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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