A new bill introduced in Congress last week would provide more educational choice for military families. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., allows military families to open an education savings account for funding a child’s education expenses. The money could be used for private school tuition, textbooks, online classes, private tutoring, and college tuition. Banks spoke to The Daily Signal about his proposal. An edited transcript is below.
Rob Bluey: You’re the most recently deployed member of Congress after your service in Afghanistan. Can you tell us about growing up in Indiana and why you decided to join the Navy Reserve?
Banks: Both of my grandfathers served in the Army. My brother served for 10 years in the Air Force. My story, even related to the military, is fairly unique because it was a little bit later in life when I decided that I needed to get serious about serving in the military. I always had a desperate interest and desire to serve, but I was about 30, 31-years-old when I was commissioned as a Navy Reserve officer.
At the time, though, I was already a sitting Indiana state senator, so it was a juggling act. I was married and my wife and I had young children at the time, but my desire to serve grew the older I got. But the older I got, the more closer I realized I was to the date when I wasn’t eligible anymore, which would have been 35-years-old.
I joined the Navy Reserves, was commissioned, was an Indiana state senator, which is a part-time job. We have sessions the first few months of the year, and I completed my training, which took about two years, was recently promoted to a lieutenant junior grade.
The Navy is different than the other branches when it comes to the ranks, and it was just shortly after I was promoted to lieutenant junior grade and completed all of my initial training that I got those orders that say you’re being deployed to Afghanistan.
When that happened, the most interesting part of the story is that Indiana has a unique state law that says that if you are activated on military orders, if you go on active-duty military orders, you can take a leave of absence as an elected official. So I did that and my wife, Amanda, was elected to take my place, so she was the Indiana state senator, the other Senator Banks, for the legislative session. I’m told every day and have been told every day since that she did a better job than I did.
But with that, we have a unique story of what military families go through. One goes to serve their country abroad. The other one steps up and does things that the other one used to do, and in this case, my wife was a single mother of three young children at the time—5, 3, and 1-year-old—but she also stepped into my shoes and served as Indiana state senator, took care of all of the things that spouses have to take care of when their loved one is deployed.
And we got a good taste of what military families go through over and over and over again. Even though it was brief for us, there are a lot of military families who do so much more, and we got a taste of what they go through every single day.
Bluey: There are so many times that we hear about stories about the difficult choices that military families have to make when they’re issued new orders or they’re deployed or have to move to a new assignment. A study by Military Times showed that education plays a big role in those decisions. What inspired you to propose this plan where essentially you’re giving more freedom and choice to families over the children’s education?
Banks: This is a really good idea in the absence of good ideas on Capitol Hill these days. It’s a substantive proposal that would solve a big problem that military families face over and over and over again.
It’s a big sacrifice for the families, and oftentimes, unfortunately, it’s the key point that leads a number of military families to get out of the military altogether, because they don’t want to go to that next assignment that might mean a subpar educational choice.
If you think about it, this is a unique population of people who move from one place to another every two to three years, from one military base to another with their families in tow, and they go through this same issue over and over again. They get settled into a community, into a home, whether it’s on base or off base. Their kids go to school and make friends and have good teachers along the way, and then they’re uprooted and move to another community.
I’ve heard the personal stories of that story over and over again. I didn’t endure this myself, although our family made sacrifices during that brief period of time that I was deployed as a reservist. We didn’t move from base to base every three years, but on the active-duty side, you hear these emotional stories of what families go through and it makes it very difficult for the families.
It’s a big sacrifice for the families, and oftentimes, unfortunately, it’s the key point that leads a number of military families to get out of the military altogether, because they don’t want to go to that next assignment that might mean a subpar educational choice. It might mean an educational situation that might not be as good as the one that they’re in currently.
Some statistics show that almost half of military families have come to that point where this has almost affected their decision of whether or not to re-enlist or stay in the military or to get out of the military altogether because of this key situation that we’re talking about today.
Bluey: You believe that by offering these education savings accounts, you’ll see more military families opting to stay in. That has a national security consequence because I understand that the costs of training someone new are significantly higher than if you have somebody who’s experienced. Talk to me about not only the educational benefits to the children, but also to our national security.
Banks: You just made the point for me. I think if you could break this down into two areas. There are the hard costs, the cost of training. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars goes into, over the career of someone in the military, to train them, prepare them.
That’s why the military is structured the way that it is, where you’re promoted every few years, and that’s why you have assignments over two to three years in different places. You’re being prepared for something bigger every step of the way, for more leadership. And a lot of money goes into training military personnel for each step of the way to prepare them for that next step of leadership.
We want them to have the best educational options for their families that could be provided so that they can focus on what is most important, what’s at hand.
So you have all of that involved. But you also have the soft costs, and that’s what I would focus on more. The emotional toll that these situations take on our military personnel, because we don’t want our men and women in uniform to be focused solely on making sure that their children are being well educated. We want them to focus on the job of protecting and serving our country. So those soft emotional costs, the emotional toll that these situations that are going on in the lives of family members, it takes away from what we want our military personnel to be focused on.
That’s what I saw when I was deployed in Afghanistan. It was very difficult because my wife and my children were at home. Every day it was difficult to focus sometimes on my job because I was focused on what they were going through at home. And that was a sliver of what our military personnel go through every single day to a much larger degree, especially on the active-duty side as they’re moving from base to base.
We want this to be simple for them. We want them to have the best educational options for their families that could be provided so that they can focus on what is most important, what’s at hand.
— Jim Banks (@Jim_Banks) November 9, 2017
Bluey: Let me ask you a follow-up to that, because I’m sure we have military families listening to us right now, and they’re asking, What does this mean for me in reality? How would the program work?
Banks: The Impact Aid dollars, about $1.5 billion, are appropriated for this fund every year. The fund was created so that school systems in areas with a military base that doesn’t pay property taxes would receive additional funding. Subsidize the funding of those local public schools with a military base that’s located.
But it was created with the military students in mind. The dollars are calculated based on the number of military children that move from that one base to the next and subsidize the funding for those children.
Rather than think about this, if we could think about this in philosophical terms, when we pay our property taxes, when we pay our tax dollars, those dollars are going to educate our children. If you really believe that, then you should also believe that those dollars could go to specifically help support the educational choices of the military children to begin with.
We have some, of course, the critics in the public school systems who receive Impact Aid dollars. What they’re leaving out is that the very minuscule impact that this would have on the public school districts who receive Impact Aid dollars. Those dollars instead would go directly to funding educational choices for the children of military personnel who are moving from base to base.
Now the choice at hand—50 percent of military kids don’t have any school choice options. In Indiana, we passed a robust educational choice program in our state. While we have that in Indiana, a lot of other states don’t provide that.
If a military family was deployed from Indiana to a state that doesn’t have school choice options, then that means that they would have to go to the only choice that might be available to them, which might be the public school option that might not be as good of a choice for them as a private school or homeschooling, etc.
This would help provide an education savings account that would help offset some of the cost for that family to choose another choice, which might be a better choice for them.
Bluey: You talked about your daughters earlier. As the father of three daughters, why is this so important to you personally?
Banks: Because that’s what it’s about. We’re able to provide them with good choices. They attend a public school now. It’s a very good public school. They’re getting a good education in second grade, kindergarten, and our youngest goes to preschool.
But there are so many military families that I’ve met along the way. These are men and women who I’ve served with in uniform. And now as a congressman, the stories that I hear from constituents and from military families all over the country who could be positively impacted by this.
This is an emotional cause because I know what it could mean in the lives of military family members and what that means ultimately to the national security of our country.
This is an emotional cause because I know what it could mean in the lives of military family members and what that means ultimately to the national security of our country. To give these families a better educational choice could mean that our readiness is better to go and prepare for keeping our country safe.
I do think it’s important also to note that when it comes to military families, this is a unique population. These are men and women in uniform who love our country, who are serving our country, and they love their children. They want their children to have the best education, too. That’s why, statistically, the rate of homeschooling in military families is twice the rate of civilian families. That tells you, that alone, that military families are making choices to help their children get the best education that they can from base to base, from community to community.
A lot of times, homeschooling is the best option for them because that’s what they’ve chosen along the way. Oftentimes, it’s the only other option that they have in the base. It’s not something that they would have chosen otherwise, but in that moment, it’s the best option for them while they’re in their assignment at that point.
I think that statistic alone tells the story of what this is all about, and giving more options to military families to pick the best choice for them. This is an easy, simple solution to allow them to do that.
Bluey: Finally, I want to ask about the process for actually making it happen. You introduced the legislation this week. You had a couple of senators sign on and introduce it in the Senate. So where do we go from here?
Banks: I never even know if the senators are paying attention or what they’re up to over there. But a couple of great conservative senators, Tim Scott and Ben Sasse, have adopted the cause because they both serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I serve on the House Armed Services Committee. In this case, a couple of really good senators have taken an interest, other senators have taken an interest as well. I know Senator [Ted] Cruz’s office and some other offices have reached out about this cause.
At the same time, we’ve had 36 or 37 House members sign on as either original co-sponsors or co-sponsors of the bill. We’re just picking up momentum. I had an opportunity to share this piece of legislation with the Republican Study Committee this week, and that brought along a number of other names who signed on as co-sponsors.
We’re just getting started.