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How Congress Could Give School Choice to Military Kids Without an Impact Aid Uproar

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos met with Pentagon officials Thursday to talk about one of her favorite topics: Extending school choice to the children of military personnel.

The meeting has stoked fears among school districts that receive Impact Aid that the Trump administration is planning to put its muscle behind a bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

DeVos has not endorsed the bill publicly, and she did not discuss it or any other specific proposals in the meeting. Instead, they talked about school choice for military personnel more generally, a department official said.

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

Importantly: the Impact Aid proposal in Congress isn't the only idea on the table to create new choice options for military-connected students. (More on other possibilities below).

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. The Banks-Sasse legislation—which is based on a proposal by the conservative Heritage Foundation—would create education savings accounts for military families, funded by the $1.3 billion Impact Aid program.  

Under the Banks-Sasse bills, money would instead go to directly to parents, who could use it for everything from private school tuition to tutoring to community college courses.

The White House might be interested in the idea, based on an internal memo that surfaced last year. That memo showed that the administration was mulling a proposal to allocate "1 billion dollars to create an education savings account for military families living on bases." It did not specifically mention Impact Aid as a funding source for the program, however.

The Banks-Sasse legislation faces long odds on Capitol Hill, where Impact Aid remains popular with lawmakers, including Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the chairman of the House panel that oversees education spending.

And 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.) Supporters of the legislation counter that the proposal would require only a small cut to districts' share of Impact Aid.  

However, there are other plans on the table to give military-connected kids more K-12 options that don't involve Impact Aid.

A separate bill sponsored by Scott would create a school choice pilot program on at least five bases. Under his legislation, military families would be eligible for scholarships of up to $8,000 for elementary and $12,000 for high school.

There have also been efforts to add similar language to defense bills. So far, none of them have passed. But using existing defense department dollars to create a choice program might be a more politically palable way for DeVos to extend choice to military families, if that's something she wants to do. The potential downside? A more limited proposal like Scott's though, may not reach as many students as the Banks-Sasse bill, and could require new money. 

Noteably, DeVos said last year during an apperance at Fort Bragg in North Carolina that Scott's bill was worth a look. 

Want more? Education Week previewed possibilities for extending choice to populations the federal government has a special responsibility for, such as military-connected kids, students on Native American reservations, and students in the District of Columbia here

Photo credit: Swikar Patel for Education Week

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