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GOP Bill Would Create ESAs for Military Families, Using Impact Aid

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A Republican lawmaker wants to create Education Savings Accounts for military families, using money now given to school districts that receive federal Impact Aid.

Impact Aid, a $1.3 billion program that has been around for decades, helps school districts to make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or military base. The proposal, by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., would give some of that money directly to families through ESAs. The accounts could be used for tutoring, private school tuition, and more.

The legislation appears to be inspired in part by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, which last year urged Congress to create ESAs for both military and Native American students using Impact Aid dollars.

In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, published Wednesday, Banks noted that a survey by Military Times found that 35 percent of service members with children said their dissatisfaction with their children's education was a "significant factor" in determining whether to continue with their service. 

"The men and women who serve our country in uniform make sacrifices daily, but the education of their children should not be one of them," said Banks in a statement. "The flexibility in this legislation will allow military families the freedom to tailor their children's education to best fit individual needs and maximize academic achievement."

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 shortsighted and will only reduce opportunities for all students in these school districts," the groups said in a statement released in December.

Their opposition could hurt the bill's chance of passage. Impact Aid enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress.

Some more bill specifics, from Banks' office: The bill would provide scholarships to three groups of students: those living on base in "heavily impacted districts" (those that receive a hefty share of impact), those living off-base in heavily impacted districts, and those living on base in non-heavily impacted districts.

Students living in heavily impacted districts would get ESAs of at least $4,500 annually and students living on base in non-heavily impacted districts would receive $2,500. Around 126,000 families would be eligible.

Banks' summary of the bill says a "small portion" of the $1.3 billion Impact Aid would go to the ESAs. The exact amount would depend on how many families choose to participate, Banks' office said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos endorsed the idea of ESAs for military families in a recent speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, but she hasn't weighed in specifically on Banks' bill.

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