Yet Another Scheme to Raid School Funding

An article titled, “Proposed GI Bill Model For K–12 Schools Would Impact Arizona Education Funding” by Claire Caufield on KZJJ.org recently caught my attention. Ah…coming to a state near us I thought, the latest school privatization effort to be shoved down our throats. Evidently, the conservative Heritage Foundation has written policy that would make all children of active-duty military members eligible to receive education savings accounts (ESAs) to attend private schools. These ESA would provide “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.”

The idea of ESAs for military children is not new, we already have that in Arizona. What is new, is that the proposal calls for the funding to come from Impact Aid, a fund established 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 initiative shouldn’t surprise us, as when there is money to be had, you can bet the school privatizers will be bellying up to the trough. Of course, 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 who are serving the United States.” In other words, it’s “all about the kids.”

Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association, said, “This kind of proposal would disadvantage far more military kids and families than could benefit from it” and pointed out that about 80% of military children attend their local district school. Huck also made the point that “Public schools offer a great way for military families to become connected to their communities.” Having grown up in an Army family and then serving for 22 years in the Air Force myself, I can personally attest to the value of both military children attending local community schools and, in military families establishing ties to their local communities.

The solution to underperforming public schools isn’t to subsidize attendance at private schools, but rather, to get these underperforming schools the resources and support they need to do better. After all, if the local community schools are inadequate for military children to attend, they shouldn’t be considered adequate for any of our children to attend. Fixing these schools though, is much easier to say, than do. That’s because, as public school proponents know, underperforming schools are often schools in high poverty areas. It is hard enough for schools to address factors they actually have control over, let alone get saddled with trying to fix overarching societal issues like poverty.

Privatizers of course, recognize they can profit from our lack of political and societal will to address these problems. Rather, they are intent on selling us Trojan horses that look like solutions, but in the end, just exacerbate the real problem. An example of this is the fact that segregation in our schools is now as high as it was in the mid–1960s and plenty of research shows this segregation doesn’t help either children of color, or white ones, achieve to their fullest.

Nonetheless, Heritage’s Burke supports her organization’s desire to provide military families options by citing a Military Times survey 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.” Guess what? During Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) reviews, the military looks closely at the quality of local schools in determining whether or not to keep a base open in a certain area. Quality corporations also look at the schools in a community when they consider locating there. In fact, back in 2011, the former CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett said, “The educational system in the United States and in Arizona in particular is not particularly attractive”, indicating that Arizona won’t be a real magnet for new business until it turns out more qualified high school and college graduates. That’s why I believe investing in our district schools is often a much better incentive to bring quality businesses to Arizona, than offering tax incentives. At least this is true for those businesses we really want…those that invest in our people and our local communities.

Burke goes on to say, “It is a national security issue, it’s a retention issue, it’s a recruitment issue for the U.S. armed services.” To that I respond with, ensuring a quality public education for ALL of America’s children is a more critical national security issue and is not getting the attention it deserves. Yes, there are likely some children who can be better served in non-traditional public education environments. But, the only way to ensure ALL children have equal opportunity to be all they can be, is in our public district schools.

I suspect Arizona lawmakers are all for this effort as in our state, both children of military families and children on tribal lands were already eligible for vouchers or, as we call them here, “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts”, even before the 2017 expansion. I assume that if Impact Aid is made available for these ESAs, that will relieve the state from having to fund the accounts. It doesn’t hurt that Secretary Devos, whose “American Federation for Children” contributed $275K to AZ Republican candidates in 2016 alone, has also expressed support for the proposal.

Never mind, that at least in Arizona, the majority of children attending private school on vouchers could have afforded to do so without taxpayer help. After all, the average basic voucher is worth around $5K and the average private elementary school tuition is $6K and the high school $18K. Vouchers alone are not going to get disadvantaged students in these private schools.

Impact aid is designed to ensure school districts on federal lands are not negatively impacted by the lack of property tax that support other districts. It is designed, to ensure adequate funding for all the students in the affected district, not to be doled out for just a few who can take advantage of it.

It all gets back to a couple of key fundamental questions. One, do we still believe in the common good and thereby recognize the role each of us plays to make it possible? Two, who do taxpayer dollars belong to? I fervently believe in the need for the common good and our responsibility toward it. I also believe that taxpayer dollars, both those that have actually already been paid, and those still owed, belong to all of us.

That’s why I will continue to fight for full transparency and accountability anytime our tax dollars are expended. As I’ve said many times, your right to send your child to the school of your choice, doesn’t trump my right to know the return on my investment. And, your right to ensure a quality education for your child, doesn’t abrogate the responsibility for all of us to work for the same for every child.

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