One set of program details conspicuously absent from the Obama Administration’s proposed 2011 budget released this week was for Impact Aid, the federal Department of Education’s funding mechanism to public schools serving children from military families. The new budget merely noted that the program would be addressed in forthcoming legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, omitting even budget estimates.
Impact Aid dollars go straight from Washington to school districts’ general funds. They carry few restrictions on their use, and no accountability requirements or measures of effectiveness. The program was created in 1950 to compensate communities for the lack of local tax revenue generated by large federal installations. It does not include Department of Defense schools that currently serve some 100,000 military families overseas and in 7 states, plus Guam and Puerto Rico.
The potential reform of Impact Aid represents an important opportunity to help the 930,000 school-aged children of active-duty military personnel. Of these, 75 percent are age 11 or younger. Senior military leaders have identified school quality, and the frequent shortage of high-quality public schools near many military bases, as a major factor in many families’ reenlistment decisions. High mobility rates place their children at an educational disadvantage.
This is especially true for families of children with disabilities. The process-heavy structure of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, on top of differing state regulations and procedures, makes it especially difficult for military families to ensure that their children receive a high-quality education. Many facilities, particularly Marine Corps and Army bases, offer such families some resources, and community support groups and online listservs provide additional help. But the institutional challenges of navigating special education procedures for families frequently on the move make the need for more, quality choices especially important.
A growing movement of high-performing charter schools represents one promising option. The military currently operates one charter school, Belle Chasse Academy outside New Orleans. Virtual schools, like the Florida Virtual School, which serves students across that state and 44 others, could also provide valuable options for families with help from state and federal policymakers.
But high-quality charters take time to implement. A federal scholarship program could add new choices for families living on or near military bases that choose to participate. Scholarships could cover the costs of attending private elementary or secondary schools, to attend public schools, public or charter, from a choice of nearby school districts, or enroll in virtual schooling. A combination of these approaches would be particularly useful in Virginia, which currently has 76,000 school-aged children of active-duty military personnel, to make a major difference in the lives of many thousands of families.
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