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GOP Senators Unveil Plan to Bolster School Choice for Military Families

UPDATED

Three Republican senators have introduced legislation that would create education savings accounts for families connected to the military.

The Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2019, introduced Thursday, would create the accounts for military families to use on a variety of education services. Families would opt in to using these accounts. The accounts would be worth up to $6,000 annually, according to a summary of the bill released by its main backers: Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

"It is imperative that we do everything we can to ensure that the children of our service members are taken care of and have the opportunities to receive a quality education," Scott said in a statement announcing the bill. "As a kid who lived on an Air Force base, I know how important it is for parents to have options for their children's education." Scott is the co-chairman, along with GOP Rep. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, of the Congressional Caucus on Education Innovation and Opportunity, formerly known as the School Choice Caucus.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., also introduced the legislation in the House. 

Education savings accounts differ from school choice programs like vouchers and tax-credit scholarships because typically, they allow parents to spend the money on things like tutoring, transportation, and online courses, in addition to private school tuition. They can also support parents who want to home-school their child. (Click here to read more about the difference between ESAs, vouchers, and scholarships.) The Cotton-Sasse-Scott proposal would roll over from year to year, and the statement says it could also go toward therapy and vocational training. Any money in the account left over after a student graduates high school could pay for expenses in higher education and industry certification, according to the statement. 

The bill from the trio of GOP lawmakers comes on the heels of last week's proposals to create federal tax-credit scholarships from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos supports the Byrne legislation, which would allow $5 billion in tax credits; Cruz's bill has a $10 billion cap. There's also a proposal to expand school choice for military families using Coverdell accounts from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C. 

Creating more choice for military families has been a top priority for conservative lawmakers and education wonks for some time. Last year, a Republican effort in Congress to create military ESAs fell short, despite support from groups like the Heritage Foundation. However, the Trump administration was ultimately not a fan of how that proposal would have paid for the accounts by taking money from the federal Impact Aid program, which supports districts that are significantly impacted by federal activities (think military bases). The Thursday statement from the GOP senators about the new bill did not identify a funding source; we've asked for more information about this, and will update this post if we hear back. 


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