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Spend After-School Aid on School Choice for Military Families, Think Tank Argues

The Trump administration might not have had much luck trying to expand school choice from Washington, but that doesn't mean conservatives inside the Beltway are done trying.

Last month, the Heritage Foundation proposedredirecting $1.2 billion in federal funds for 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which supports after-school programs, to new education savings accounts, which would be made available to military families seeking new schooling options. The conservative think tank, which supports school choice but is generally leery of federally directed choice programs, also highlighted two other programs it thinks could be good candidates for this general idea: Education Innovation and Research grants, and Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which aims to fund programs creating safe schools and well-rounded students.

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Education savings accounts allow parents and guardians to use money for a wide variety of expenses, from tuition and transportation to tutoring and online courses. Learn how ESAs differ from other school choice programs here

The brief from Lindsey Burke, Jonathan Butcher, and Jude Schwalbach states that lawmakers left "unfinished business" from the last Congress, and should "redirect federal spending from failing education programs to help K-12 students from military families." They highlight 2005 research reporting that the after-school programs were either ineffective or had a negative impact on student behavior, as well as a Government Accountability Office review showing no consistent improvement for program participants, although advocates for the after-school centers have a different research story to tell. They also state that Impact Aid remains a "promising path forward" for this idea. 

What does "unfinished business" mean? Well, if this idea sounds roughly familiar, that's because last year, Heritage also pushed lawmakers to repurpose education spending on other programs into education savings accounts for children connected to the armed forces. That idea found a vehicle in a bill authored by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., who sought to fund these ESAs with money from Impact Aid, a $1.2 billion program that provides support to districts where the tax base is affected by federal activities such as military bases. 

However, the Trump administration ultimately signalled that it didn't support this idea, and the legislation from Banks came up short. And if the proposal had a tough time in the 115th Congress, the new 116th Congress and its Democrat-led House might be even less receptive to this idea. It's also worth highlighting that last year, lawmakers provided relatively small funding increases in fiscal 2019 for all four of the programs Heritage mentions. The administration has itself previously tried to cut or repurpose funding for all of these programs. 

So the chances of Heritage getting what it's looking for might be pretty slim this Congress. But don't be surprised if a GOP lawmaker drops a bill with a proposal along these lines in 2019 or 2020. 

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