June 2018 Church & State Magazine - June 2018

AU And Allied Military Groups Oppose New Federal Private School Voucher Program

  Liz Hayes

Americans United and allies have been urging Congress not to sneak language creating a private school voucher program for military-connected students into an annual defense bill.

Inspired by the Heritage Foundation and emboldened by support from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, U.S. Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and U.S. Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) have introduced legislation to create vouchers for military-connected students. Known as the “Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act,” this legislation would use federal funding from the Impact Aid program to create Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) – a type of private school voucher – for students with military parents on active duty residing on military bases.

Impact Aid is a source of funding for school districts that have lost local tax revenue due to the presence of federal tax-exempt land, such as military installations, Native American reservations or national parks.

“School districts rely on this funding to provide education to military-connected students,” wrote Elise Helgesen Aguilar, AU’s federal legislative counsel, on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “Diverting Impact Aid dollars to private school vouchers would be especially detrimental.”

Since the bill is unlikely to pass on its own, supporters are reportedly trying to add the program to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is often used as a vehicle to sneak in policies that endanger religious freedom.

Groups representing military students and their families, including the National Military Family Association, Military Officers Association of America, the Military Child Education Coalition and the National Association for Federally Impacted Schools, as well as Americans Uni­ted and the National Coalition for Public Education which AU co-chairs, are opposed to the use of Impact Aid to fund private school vouchers for military students.

The Military Coalition, a consortium of uniformed services and veterans’ associations representing more than 5.5 million current and former service members and their families, sent a letter to Congress in opposition to this voucher proposal.

“It is clear that the groups representing the students, families and schools that would be impacted by this legislation do not want it,” Hel­ge­sen Aguilar noted.

An overwhelming number of AU members also answered the call to contact their members of Congress to urge them to vote down any federally funded voucher schemes.

No amendments related to military vouchers were put forth during a May 9 House Armed Services Committee debate. The NDAA was expected to be debated on the House floor in late May, when more amendments could be proposed; that had not yet happened at Church & State’s press time.

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