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Thursday, March 08, 2018 1:00 am

Banks' bill would help active-duty with school

Proposes savings accounts to pay for private education

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

U.S. Rep. Jim Banks introduced legislation Wednesday that would let active-duty military families tap public funds to send their children to private schools.

Banks' proposal would allow military personnel to establish tax-free education savings accounts financed by Impact Aid, a federal program that helps school districts that lose property tax revenue or incur increased expenses because of their proximity to tax-exempt federal property, including military bases and Indian lands.

“Expanding educational opportunities for military-dependent children will give parents who serve the peace of mind to focus on their missions,” Banks, R-3rd, said in a statement. “Portability is key for students who are often required to move because of a change in a parent's military assignment. 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.”

Twenty-seven states, including Indiana, already have school choice programs for residents. States without such programs include California and Texas, which have the nation's largest populations of active-duty military personnel.

Banks wrote an op-ed column about his legislation that was published this week in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “Military Families Deserve School Choice.” A member of the Navy Reserve, Banks cited a 2017 survey by the Military Times showing 35 percent of respondents said dissatisfaction with a child's education was “a significant factor” in deciding whether to continue their military service, while 40 percent said that they had declined or would decline a career-advancing transfer to another military base if it meant withdrawing their children from a high-performing school.

His bill, called the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act, would make money available to pay for private school tuition and textbooks, online instruction, private tutoring and other expenses. Education savings accounts would be for $2,500 or $4,500 in the first year, with the larger amount applying to students living in school districts that are “heavily impacted” by federal property. The amounts could be adjusted for inflation in subsequent years.

Impact Aid spends about $2 billion a year on student support, including roughly $500 million for students who are children of military personnel. Banks' bill states that only Impact Aid funds designated for school districts serving military bases could be appropriated for school choice programs.

The conservative Heritage Foundation, which has advocated for Banks' measure, says that nearly 537,000 active-duty military personnel live in states without school choice. 

Banks' proposal also has the support of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In February, DeVos told the Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington, D.C., that many active-duty military families living at bases are dissatisfied with their local public schools, according to a report by The Associated Press.

“An education savings account would afford them a much different dynamic and approach to be able to get their education in the way that best works for them,” DeVos said, according to The Associated Press.

But in commentary published Monday by the Military Times, advocates for military families and affected schools argued that education savings accounts would be “a bad deal” for military families and “a disaster” for public schools.

“Not only does this proposal divert public taxpayer dollars out of the public system designed to support all students, it sets unrealistic expectations among military families,” wrote Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, and Hilary Goldmann, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

The proposal “would leave unwitting parents holding the bag when the promised ESAs aren't enough to finance their child's education,” Raezer and Goldmann wrote.