Expanding education options for children of military families

Military personnel are in the service of their country more so than any federal bureaucrat or state regulator. It’s entirely reasonable that military parents, who are not allowed to choose the conflicts in which they participate, should command more choice over the education of their children, who didn’t choose to grow up in the military life. This does not constitute a plea for special privilege. Extending choice to the children of military families has a long-standing foundation with a record of success.

This June marked the 66th anniversary of the Servicemembers’ Readjustment Act of 1944, today known as the Montgomery GI Bill. By putting a college education within the financial reach of veterans, the GI Bill is credited with growing the American middle class and ushering in one of the longest economic expansions in history. Legislation enacted in 2008 now allows service members enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill program to transfer their unused higher-education benefits to their spouses or children. Those benefits, however, don’t include elementary and secondary education. Unfortunately, Congress has thus far blocked recent efforts to expand education options for school-age military children.

With more than 200,000 active duty and selected reserve members, California leads the nation with the largest military population. Their children cannot afford to wait for Congress to act. Only about half of students in public schools surrounding California’s 26 military bases score proficient in English language arts and math on the California Standards Test. Barely 14 percent of students in those schools score ­college-­ready in English on the Early Assessment Program, while just 9 percent score college-ready in math. California’s estimated 93,000 military children deserve better.

A GI Junior Scholarship Program would help improve their educational opportunities, allay parents’ concerns about providing a quality education for their children regardless of where they live, and help ensure a strong national defense by improving recruitment and retention efforts — an important concern in California, which ranks 40th nationally in recruits relative to population.

Letting military children use GI Junior Scholarships — averaging around half the funding public school districts receive — to attend private schools could provide state and local school districts with an estimated annual savings of more than $547 million. Such savings are significant since the state faces a $19.1 billion deficit, in addition to $69 billion in outstanding debt at a time when most federal Recovery Act (stimulus) funds are scheduled to expire by July, and tax receipts are unlikely to make up the shortfall as hoped.

Military children, who must live with their parents’ sacrifices, should not face barriers to a better education from people who should be their allies. That applies, in particular, to those in Congress, the California Legislature and the government-run K-12 schooling system, many of whom send their own children to private schools. California should enact GI Junior Scholarships for children of military families. Beyond the benefits already outlined, such a scholarship program could help lift the Golden State to a position of national leadership in educational opportunity.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is PRI Education Studies associate director. She and Evelyn B. Stacey, PRI Education Studies policy fellow, are co-authors of the forthcoming “GI Junior Scholarships: Expanding Education Options for Children from Military Families in California.”

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