Breaking down barriers for American military families

Since moving to an all-volunteer force, the U.S. military has had to pay special attention to recruitment and retention. Challenges in these areas are not getting any easier. For instance, the Army missed its 2018 recruitment objective by 6,500 personnel. This is quite inauspicious, coming at a time when the Pentagon wants to increase the Army by more than 24,000 soldiers.

The Air Force, faces a shortage of more than 1,200 fighter pilots — the equivalent of “a $12 billion capital loss for the United States Air Force,” according to Lt. Gen. Gina M. Grosso, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. Meanwhile, the replacement pool is shrinking. Today, 71 percent of Americans between 17 and 24 are ineligible to serve in the military, mostly due to inadequate education, criminality, and obesity.

To combat dwindling recruitment and retention, is considering tailoring the military experience to the interests and talents of servicemen and women, empowering service member to have a say over their assignments. Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, noted some obvious advantages of adopting a market-based opportunity system for military personnel. “It allows the individual officer to identify their skills, knowledge, attributes and talents and put those in the marketplace, and allows units to identify the officers they want…,” he said.

The Army is not alone in pursuing market-based measures to improve personnel retention and their experience while in uniform. The Air Forceand Navy are also exploring options to give airmen and sailors more time with their families to compete with the more flexible private sector where workers can spend time with family more easily. However, boosting individuals’ career satisfaction is not the sole solution. More than half of the modern military is married. As such, their family concerns, especially the education of their dependents, weigh heavily in their decisions whether to stay in uniform or not.

That’s where a critical new proposal introduced today in the House by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and in the Senate by Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) comes into play. The proposal would give Education Savings Accounts to children of active duty military families. Extending school choice to military families is a policy that could pay major dividends, alleviating pressing recruitment and retention issues that create challenges for our armed forces.

Currently there is a gross dissatisfaction surrounding education options for military dependents. The children of military-connected families are typically assigned to the public school nearest to their parent’s assigned base, and 80 percent of military-connected children attend public schools. But only 34 percent of parents surveyed by EdChoice thought that the local public school was the best fit for their children.

In fact, a Military Times survey found that a third of its readers, which included members from all military branches, have either refused promotions or considered leaving the military altogether because of poor education choices for their children. Enhanced education opportunities through military education savings accounts can help soften the military’s retention problem. Education Savings Accounts would empower parents to tailor their children’s education to their particular needs.

The current proposal would provide an ESA of $6,000 to children from military families, which they could then use to pay for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies if needed, private tutoring, curriculum, and textbooks. Families could roll over unused funds from year-to-year, and could roll unused funds into college savings accounts.

Although this is a relatively new idea, it has already garnered the support of three quarters of military personnel. Such a policy would provide military families with the flexibility required for their children to find learning options that are the right fit for them, given their unique situations. It also aligns the interests of military families and those of an efficient, high-performing, and dynamic military. Parents will no longer have to choose between serving their country and their children’s educational needs.

Pentagon leaders have recognized that market-based options can improve the workplace, now they have the chance to expand that logic to education. Military Education Savings Accounts would allow parents to have real control over their children’s education instead of their children being trapped in the school nearest their duty station, a shift aligned with the armed services broader push for a tailored military experience. Military personnel are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice for us. We should not ask them to sacrifice their children’s future as well.