It's become an alarming trend that lawmakers sneakily attach unpopular new amendments to big annual legislation that invariably passes. This has happened repeatedly with the National Defense Authorization Act, a very popular bill especially among Republicans (passage of the NDAA hasn't failed once in the last 57 years).
The 2019 NDAA represents yet another campaign against public education, this time with some unlikely victims: Now, the Republicans are turning to attack their own base, because hidden in the language of the annual "must-pass" bill is a direct assault on the children of people in the military.
Certain terms in this bill -- which they've given the innocuous name, "The Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018 (H.R. 5199) -- would lead to an incredible defunding of public schools, specifically those that cater to children of military families. One might consider this an unconscionable tact for even the Republicans to take, given their staunch support of the military.
But all the old rules are being re-written, in this case literally. The language in the bill boils down to this: GOP lawmakers feel fine about asking citizens to fight and die for our country, but not fine about providing a proper education for those people's children.
The fact is, this bill does the opposite of what its title implies. At its core it is a targeted effort to massively defund public schools and shift more money into private institutions. If the NDAA passes with the added terms -- which it's on its way to doing after 131 congressional Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in voting Yes -- military schools will suffer a huge decrease of their portion of the Federal Impact Aid, which provides funding to public schools in areas that don't collect local taxes. This happens, for example, on federal land, and since the majority of these schools are located near military bases, they are also where military families send their children.
A large portion of funding for military family schools comes from Federal Impact Aid, but Republicans have suggested a perennial conservative favorite to replace it: a voucher program. Why? Because it would put the money directly into the hands of private businesses. This will clearly hurt the most defenseless parts of our society. But who's counting? Fortunately, we still live in a world where it's at least nominally unpopular to pass legislation that strips funding from children, especially those of military families. Yet even that taboo may be broken.
Opposing the legislation are the Military Child Education Coalition, Military Officers Association of America, National Military Family Association, National Military Family Foundation, National Association of Federally Impacted School and the Military Impact Association. In a collective statement released recently, the groups wrote: "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."
Those who are part of the military, and who know military children, are the ones most likely to disapprove of this "short-sighted" plan. But even they appear of little concern in the new political climate where winning is more important than running the government in good faith. Bolstered by the Trump administration, Republicans have taken the sting out of controversy and scandal. Now, while everyone intently watches the whirlwind of the Trump circus, the rest of the Republican clan are making the most of the chaos by covertly passing as much reprehensible legislation as possible, capitalizing on the grand distraction.
Who, specifically, are we talking about that will bear the costs of this policy? Nearly 60 percent of children in military families are school aged, and 80 percent attend public schools. The majority of these schools rely on the Impact Aid program, which has existed since the 1950s to bridge the funding gap created by their non-taxable federal regions.
If H.R. 5199 passes along with the NDAA, children attending schools on federal land will have a choice of either attending their school or receiving a voucher for a private school. But as we've seen time and again, the quality of charter schools varies, and as a whole they haven't shown themselves to be better than public schools.
Margaret Raymond, director of the CREDO program at Stanford University and a self-described pro-market enthusiast, publicly admitted that the supposed benefits of voucher programs have failed to materialize. Student results are not improving, and taxes are actually increasing in many areas.
One large factor that has to be considered: Private schools lack any form of standardized courses. Military families have special needs because they are often impacted by frequent moving, which happens on average six to nine times. Keeping them within the public system is much easier for children because they can pick up where they left off educationally, regardless of where they go.
Now, the new bill will bounce kids between private schools with completely different curricula, generating potentially disastrous results for their education. In an effort to avoid this pitfall, in 2015 Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, creating a Military Student Identifier for each student with the hope of improving the quality of education for military families by tracking educational continuity. All that progress flies out the window with the current legislation.
The changes proposed in the NDAA bill are, in fact, the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank. If approved, the bill would provide eligible families between $2,500 and $4,500 per child from Federal Impact Aid if they pulled their children out of public K-12 school. It's estimated that over 125,000 children would be eligible under this change.
Like most of the ideas put out by the Heritage Foundation, this is one too stems from ideology, not evidence. Heritage only cites a survey of readers from the Military Times, and predictably concludes from the data that the solution to all problems must be privatization. Although military families have cited that school performance can often be a factor for their leaving or staying in the military, the solution to under-performing schools cannot, in any rational world, be to take away their funding.
That same survey of Military Times readers found that, by a factor of almost 2 to 1, moving between schools was the one factor that led to the greatest difficulties in military families' children's education. Heritage doesn't consider the impacts of curriculum discontinuity in its advocacy and conveniently assumes that private schools will handle these unique challenges well, even without the aid of standardized curricula.
However, research has shown that kids in charter schools tend to move between schools even more than public school children, mainly because of the variability in the quality of education. Parents are forced to shop around just to find adequate schools. Rather than focus on passing legislation that might improve these schools, GOP lawmakers have instead chosen to undermine public schools that actually work in the name of ideology.
Defenders of the bill contend that they are trying to help military families by giving them a choice of what school to attend. That sounds alright in theory until you realize that the end result will present military families with an impossible choice: between giving their voucher to the owner of a charter school that is looking to make a profit, or sending their kids to a school that has just had a large chunk of its annual budget disappear.
It's hard to see how this could benefit the children, who are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils/ Worse still, switching students between private schools with different curricula actually exacerbates one of the key challenges in educating military children. The changes being advocated would negatively impact students' education, and the unfounded notion that choice alone will solve the issues of educating military children is an illusion.
The House author of the bill, a 37-year-old Indiana representative named Jim Banks, is a relatively new congressmen. His first contribution in Congress was to introduce a bill last year requiring all visa applicants to have their social media accounts scrutinized. A reluctant Trump enabler, he nonetheless shares the president's goal of shifting public funds to private interests, and his bill typifies the duplicity of modern conservative legislation.
After all, look at his own state. Indiana has the nation's largest school voucher program, which conservatives hail as an unmitigated success. But in reality, it is a shocking failure, robbing a proper education from thousands of children.
A University of Arkansas study found that, for Indiana students at the schools studied, "lower quality schools have a higher tendency of participating in voucher programs." Although good charter schools exist, on average voucher programs reduce educational achievement because they introduce the nasty element of profit into the equation. Not all the voucher money goes directly toward your child's education; it's also used to pay off stakeholders.
If Rep. Banks had taken a closer look at the performance of voucher schools in his own state, he would know this federal law will reduce the educational opportunities of children nationwide, just like it did in Indiana. Public schools, bled dry of funds, have resorted to advertising on billboards and on the radio to attempt to increase student retention. For Rep. Banks and his ideological followers, these facts clearly don't play a part in their decision.
Sadly, HR 5199 will likely pass with little notice. The fact is, not many people are looking too closely at the NDAA, even as the Trump presidency threatens to send America rearing off a cliff. Though the exact date of the vote isn't set, it won't occur until later in the year. Meanwhile, propaganda pushing for the private looting of public funds under the guise of "school choice" is in full swing. Military families are more likely than not to vote conservative, but the proposed GOP changes to Federal Impact Aid are most definitely not in their children's interests. No wonder lawmakers are trying to sneak the bill into the NDAA, hoping nobody will notice.