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Legislators Are Trying to Hide a Dangerous Voucher Proposal Inside the Defense Spending Bill

This proposal would funnel taxpayer dollars to private, unaccountable education providers that do not have an obligation to serve all students equally.

the bill could lead to funds going toward the virtual school industry, which has asuspect track record in terms of educational achievement and financial management, while targeting students of color and low-income students.

"The bill could lead to funds going toward the virtual school industry, which has asuspect track record in terms of educational achievement and financial management, while targeting students of color and low-income students." (Photo: Shutterstock)

This week, Congress is set to begin consideration of the annual defense bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA sets spending priorities for the Department of Defense and is one of few pieces of legislation that Congress takes up every year. Legislators haven’t failed to pass an NDAA in57 consecutive years.

Its “must-pass” status makes the NDAA an attractive vehicle for members to try to attach proposals they personally favor, but that may not get consideration as a stand-alone bill. Such is the case this year for a proposal to turn Impact Aid, a long-standing federal education program, into a voucher scheme.

The Impact Aid program has existed since 1950 and provides funds to school districts that lose local tax revenue due to the presence of tax-exempt federal land, like military installations, Native American reservations, or national parks. It also funds school districts that have higher expenses because they enroll federally connected students, like those who reside on Indian lands, military bases, and other federal properties.

But the Education Savings Accounts for Military Families Act of 2018 (H.R. 5199), introduced last month by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), would undercut that support by taking Impact Aid funds and turning them into a voucher. As a consequence, communities with an already low level of local tax revenue would face reduced funding for school districts at which the vast majority of the nation’s school-age military children are enrolled. While this legislation purports to help military families, it would actually damage the schools educating military children while excluding many military children from eligibility.

It’s not just detrimental to military families either. H.R. 5199 would likely have important consequences for Native American children and other students who are federally connected and would lose out on the reallocation of resources.

Affected stakeholders have been vocal in their opposition. The National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, the National Military Family Association, and the National Indian Education Associationoppose the idea. Joining them isThe Military Coalition, a group of uniformed services and veterans associations representing more than 5.5 million current and former service members, their families, and survivors. Instead, many military service organizations, including some of those mentioned above, have urged Congress to preserve the Impact Aid program and continue its funding.

A primary supporter of this legislation is the Heritage Foundation, which supported the idea last year and has continued to push for the legislation in 2018. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has expressed general support for ideas like H.R. 5199, which is no surprise given her history of support for vouchers and policies that damages public schools.

For these groups, the NDAA represents an attractive opportunity to hitch a ride. But the circumstance can’t change the fact that, like all voucher schemes, this bill would funnel taxpayer dollars to private, unaccountable education providers that do not have an obligation to serve all students equally. Voucher program schools can and do deny admission to students because they or their parents are LGBTQ, promote religious education with taxpayer dollars, and fail to notify students with disabilities and their families that they lose educational rights when attending private schools.

And in the case of this legislation, the details reflect an intent to keep these taxpayer dollars as far from oversight as possible. It would, for instance, allow funds to be used for a broad array of educational services, but the proposal does not establish any procedure to determine what a “qualified educational service provider” is. Instead it defines a provider as simply an “entity or person that provides educational services” — no accreditation requirement, no public reporting, no accountability.

This is hugely concerning.

For example, the bill could lead to funds going toward the virtual school industry, which has a suspect track record in terms of educational achievement and financial management, while targeting students of color and low-income students. In one recent example, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online K-12 school in Ohio, abruptly closed in January after being ordered to repay millions of dollars for overstating enrollment. Allegedly the company used software to intentionally inflate attendance figures. The lack of oversight could also lead to federal funding of tutoring services that discriminate against students because of their LGBTQ status or programs that claim they are designed to serve students with disabilities but hire staff without sufficient training.

No amount of accountability measures can undo inherent problems with vouchers. But this legislation’s lack of them is egregious and does a disservice to all federally connected students by damaging their public schools and forcing those left behind to carry the burden of under-resourced districts.

The NDAA’s passage might be an inevitability, but legislators should reject amending it with this stealth proposal, which hurts educational equity for military-connected children, Native Americans, and other federally connected students.

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Mike Garvey

Mike Garvey is Assistant to the Chief of Staff at the ACLU Legislative Office.

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