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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Voucher bill backed by Trump administration takes aim at military children's schools

President Trump and his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have made no secret of their contempt for traditional public schools. Both Trump and DeVos are wealthy products of private schools. In his 2018 budget, Trump and DeVos, a billionaire activist whose experience with education consists solely of years of funding alternatives to public schools, proposed a $250 million national private school voucher program.

Fortunately, Congress was quick to nix the voucher program. Still, Trump and DeVos seemingly will leave no stone unturned in their efforts to privatize education. First, the new tax bill overhauled so-called 529 Savings Plans, converting them from a tax-protected college savings plan to a money-laundering scheme to grant large tax breaks to parents who send their children to private schools. Arkansas lawmakers fell for that one recently, when they passed their own 529 tax break that exempts up to $10,000 annually per child for private school tuition.

Now Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) has introduced a bill (H.R.5199) to repurpose money that supports Department of Defense schools overseas and traditional public schools that serve children of military families in the U.S. into a voucher program to be used for private school tuition, on-line learning, home school supplies, tutoring, computer hardware and software, and a number of other "educational" purposes. The bill specifies that the funds can only be used for students who are not attending a traditional public school.

DeVos has been pitching such a bill to military families for at least a year. In an April 2017 visit to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, DeVos told parents the Trump administration wanted to provide vouchers so that military families could send their children to "any school they want."

"Not so fast!" says a coalition of more than 25 organizations representing more than 5.5 million active and former members of the U.S. Military. In a letter to House leaders, the coalition claimed that the voucher program would divert vital revenue that goes to school districts that serve military children, "critically compromising the quality of education they could provide to military children and their civilian classmates."

Of nearly 600,000 school age military children, more than 80 per cent attend public schools in their local communities. The proposed voucher program would be paid for by diverting Impact Aid, which offsets the cost of educating military children for local school districts that receive no property tax revenue from federal lands, such as military bases. 

Furthermore, the advocacy group noted that it would be counter-productive to defund Impact Aid in order to provide a minimal benefit ($2,500 to most children) to the small minority of military children who would qualify for the program. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual cost of private high school tuition in the U.S. is $13,030, a far cry from the $2,500-$4,500 tuition voucher the bill would provide.

The idea of private school vouchers for military-connected children has been getting pushback from those affected since DeVos first started talking up the idea. In response to her support for a similar bill to H.R.5199 in 2017, the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS) and the Military Impacted Schools Association issued a joint statement saying that military families want more investment in public schools, not vouchers, claiming that such legislation "would set back education for military-connected students, period."

Citing the Military Interstate Children's Compact that has been adopted by all 50 states and Washington, D.C., that addresses challenges military families encounter with enrollment, placement, attendance, eligibility and graduation, the director of NAFIS noted that "supporting military families and the unique needs of military-connected children is a top priority for public school districts and states." She further noted that "the Compact only applies to public schools."

Research into school voucher programs generally has found little to no evidence of improved academic performance in voucher schools. In fact, studies of voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana have shown that voucher students scored significantly lower in math and reading than students attending the states' public schools. 

An ABC News poll of all likely voters found that 40 per cent support and 55 per cent oppose government funded private school vouchers. When asked if they would support vouchers even if it meant less money would go to public schools, the support fell to 23 per cent in favor of vouchers with 70 per cent against. 

In the face of this overwhelming lack of support and evidence of ineffectiveness of voucher programs, it will be interesting to see if Congress passes Rep. Banks' voucher bill. If they do, it will be one more example of ideology, not science or the will of the people, driving education policy in Washington.

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