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Proposed GI Bill Model For K-12 Schools Would Impact Arizona Education Funding

Public school advocates worry that a proposal to adapt the GI Bill model for K-12 education will drain a large source of funds for many Arizona schools.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has written policy that would give every child of an active-duty service member an education savings account. These accounts would get anywhere from $2,500 to $4,500 annually to help parents send their child to a private or online school or to pay for tutoring and special education services.

“We need to ensure we are providing the children of our armed services with an education option that serves them, as well as their parents are serving the United States,” Lindsey Burke, director of education policy at Heritage, said.

“We need to ensure we are providing the children of our armed services with an education option that serves them, as well as their parents ...” — Lindsey Burke

The money for these would come from Impact Aid, a federal program that currently sends money for military children directly to that child’s school district. This fund was set up by Congress in 1950 to assist districts with the cost of educating children who live on federal lands, and therefore don't pay local taxes that support the districts. Today, Impact Aid is disbursed to schools connected to tribal lands, military bases, low-rent housing and other federal properties.

Because of the state’s high number of students on tribal lands, Arizona districts received $169 million last year in Impact Aid, the highest total in the country. Over $11 million was for children of military and uniformed services families, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

“This kind of proposal would disadvantage far more military kids and families than could benefit from it,” said Eileen Huck, the government relations deputy director with the National Military Family Association.

About 80 percent of military children attend their local district school, according to the National Military Family Association.

“Public schools offer a great way for military families to become connected to their communities,” Huck said. “They're friends with their civilian neighbors, they play sports on teams with their civilian friends and we want closer connections between our military families and the civilian communities where they live.”

“Public schools offer a great way for military families to become connected to their communities.” — Eileen Huck

Huck doesn't believe there’s enough money in Impact Aid to adequately fund these accounts.

But Heritage’s Burke said something has to be done to give military families education options. She cites a survey by the Military Times that found 35 percent of respondents said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to continue or end their military career.

“It is a national security issue, its a retention issue, its a recruitment issue for the U.S. armed services,” she said.

Burke said there is more than enough funding in military Impact Aid to fund these accounts without negatively impacting public schools or other communities receiving Impact Aid, like Native American students. 

“For district schools [with a high number of military children], if 5 to 10 percent of those students chose to leave with an education savings account that would still only average less than one percent of their school district budget,” Burke said.

Although the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t currently have studies that can confirm or deny the Heritage Foundation’s estimates, Secretary Betsy Devos has expressed pubic support for the proposal.

“An education savings account would allow them a much different dynamic approach to be able to get their education in a way that best works for them,” Devos said at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, where she appeared onstage with Kay Coles James, president of the Heritage Foundation.

Ninety percent of K-12 funding is supplied and managed by the states, but this 10 percent is entirely within the federal government’s purview, said Burke.

“I think that this proposal is on really solid footing,” she said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been modified to correct the proposed dollar amount of the savings accounts.

Claire Caulfield was a reporter and Morning Edition producer at KJZZ from 2015 to 2019.