Opinion: Daily Journal

Meeting educational needs of military families

EdChoice recently published “Surveying the Military: What America’s Servicemembers, Veterans, and Their Spouses Think About K–12 Education and the Profession.” Researchers Paul DiPerna, Lindsey Burke, and Anne Ryland conducted a national survey of military households to assess their views on school-choice options, district schools, and careers in the military. Their goal was to gain insight into a segment of the population that is misunderstood and too often overlooked by scholars and school reformers. The EdChoice study is of obvious importance to a state such as North Carolina, which has more than 100,000 active-duty military personnel and thousands of veterans, civilians in defense industries, and their families.  

Like most American families, military households are worried about the future of K-12 education in the United States. DiPerna, Burke, and Ryland report 51 percent of survey respondents believe American education is on the wrong track. Only around one-third said the nation’s schools are headed in the right direction. 

Because military households have doubts about the quality of schools available to children, they strongly support educational options. If afforded the opportunity to select any type of school, the percentage of survey respondents who preferred a district school was nearly identical to those who preferred a private school, 34 and 33 percent, respectively. Another 17 percent would choose a charter school, 6 percent would operate a homeschool, and 4 percent would select an internet-based (aka virtual) school. 

Given their strong preference for private schools, it’s no surprise military households overwhelmingly support private school vouchers. In fact, 64 percent of respondents said they backed vouchers, while only 27 percent opposed them. 

Thanks to the tireless efforts of education reform advocates, concerned citizens, and Republican lawmakers, North Carolina now operates two voucher programs — the Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income children and the Disability Grant Program for children with special needs. Children who attended a Department of Defense School in North Carolina and children with a parent or legal guardian on full-time duty status in the active uniformed service are eligible to receive an Opportunity Scholarship of up to $4,200, so long as they meet income eligibility requirements. Military children who have a documented disability may receive up to $8,000 to attend a participating private school. The General Assembly set aside $44 million for Opportunity Scholarships and $10 million for Disability Grants for the current school year and plan to increase funding in the coming years to meet growing demand. 

Respondents to the EdChoice survey also overwhelmingly support education savings accounts. An astounding 72 percent were in favor of ESAs, a state-funded bank account that allows parents to buy qualifying instructional materials and educational services for their children. According to researchers, military households believe that ESAs provide access to a better academic environment, more flexibility for parents, and more individual attention. Only 15 percent of respondents oppose ESAs, mostly due to the mistaken belief that they divert funding from public schools. 

Earlier this year, the North Carolina became the sixth state in the nation to pass ESA legislation. Beginning in 2018, the $3.3 million N.C. Personal Education Savings Account Program will begin awarding $9,000 ESAs so that special needs children can receive an education that is customized to meet their needs. Like the state’s Disability Grant Program, military children who have a documented disability and meet other eligibility requirements qualify for the program. 

That’s not to say that district schools ignore the needs of military families. In addition to North Carolina being a member of the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, state law requires principals to develop a plan to serve “the unique needs of students identified as military-connected students.”   

Nevertheless, meeting the unique needs of military families necessitates providing pathways for them to connect to a wide range of educational options and opportunities. The robust growth of private school vouchers, charter schools, and virtual schools, along with the planned rollout of ESAs next year, suggest North Carolina is doing just that. 

Dr. Terry Stoops is the John Locke Foundation vice president for research.