Give military families a path to school choice

By PAUL DIPERNA | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 28, 2017

President Donald Trump reportedly has it on a wish list to make $1 billion in federal educational choice funding available for military families. While few details have been made public, a survey we released this month makes it clear that military families would welcome that kind of commitment when it comes to K-12 education.

There are about 750,000 school-age children living in active-duty member households, and they undergo multiple moves throughout their military parent’s career, finding new homes, new friends and new schools. Add the deployments that can take servicemembers overseas for months, if not years, and one can begin to see how military-connected children experience an unusual amount of stress.

And when children feel that stress, their parents do, too, adding another layer of strain to the protectors of our national security.

Regular cross-country moves for base assignments and long deployments are unlikely to change anytime soon, but one measure we can take to relieve some of this pressure is to provide more educational options for the children of servicemembers.

EdChoice’s new survey of 1,200 active-duty servicemembers, veterans and their spouses, shows that military families have strongly positive feelings about more access to school choice options.

For example, military respondents in this survey were almost five times more likely to support Education Savings Accounts — 72 percent favor to 15 percent oppose — in which they could use a government-authorized and -funded savings account to pay for educational purposes such as tuition, tutoring, online education, textbooks and teaching materials. Similarly, 64 percent of military households said they support school vouchers, compared with 27 percent who oppose.

For military households overseas, those ESAs could be put to similar use on instructional materials, tutoring and online education, among other uses.

But we wanted to find out not just what military families think about different types of K-12 educational choice policies, but also what are their experiences with local district schooling, and what are their attitudes toward the military profession and their life priorities?

Military families are a highly proactive population supporting the educational needs of their children, according to our survey. When asked what they had done to secure their children’s K-12 education, military parents significantly outpaced school parents in the general population in taking on an additional job (44 percent to 21 percent), changing jobs (37 percent to 14 percent), moving closer to school (37 percent to 17 percent), or taking out a loan (32 percent to 11 percent).

Similarly, to accommodate their children’s education, military families are much more likely than the national average to pay for transportation to school (37 percent to 15 percent), to pay for before- or after-care services (54 percent to 35 percent) and to “significantly change their routine” (56 percent to 38 percent).

These quality-of-life issues affect military readiness now, and also recruitment and retention in the future. Simply put, as servicemembers think about starting or expanding their families, or joining, staying in or leaving the military, schooling flexibility and opportunities will be major considerations.

We asked veterans what explained their decision to leave the service, and of current school parents, 26 percent stated to the effect that spending time with family and other family reasons explain their decision to leave. For all respondents, besides coming to the end of their contract, it was the next-most-cited reason (tied with medical/injury reasons) for ending their service to the United States.

Our survey’s interviews help us better understand the schooling context, needs and preferences of military families. There is a clear structural disconnect between family preferences and what we observe in the real world in terms of school enrollments. Roughly four out of five military-connected children are currently attending public district schools, but in our survey two out of three military parents say they would like to choose educational options outside of regular public schools. Something can and should be done to help build a policy mechanism so that military families can realize their education goals.

A valuable next step would be a longitudinal cohort study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) or perhaps a nongovernmental organization or consortium, to identify concrete steps the federal government can take to develop viable pathways and access to increased educational options for military-connected children. The NCES’ Early Childhood Longitudinal Study is a great example.

Military recruitment and retention is a core priority of our national security, so we must do more to give our servicemembers and their families as much comfort on the home front as possible. More educational opportunities and access for military families is a significant way to strengthen the backbone of our national security.

Paul DiPerna is vice president of research and innovation at EdChoice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation focused on education reform based in Indianapolis, and co-author, with Lindsey M. Burke and Anne Ryland, of “Surveying the Military: What America’s Servicemembers, Veterans and Their Spouses Think About K-12 Education and the Profession.”


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