Research & Commentary: Survey Shows Military Families Overwhelmingly Support School Choice

Published July 15, 2019

EdChoice recently released a follow-up to its 2017 survey of military families and their opinions on the current state of the educational system and how it affects their decision to continue serving in the armed forces.

The survey of 1,295 active-duty service members and their spouses finds these families overwhelmingly support school choice options such as education savings accounts (ESA). Indeed, 72 percent of respondents favored ESAs. Only 34 percent would prefer to send their children to a traditional public school.

A primary reason these families are so interested in school choice is safety concerns. One out of five respondents listed the safety of their children as the highest priority for them in picking a school.

This is not an unreasonable concern. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 827,000 total incidents of theft and nonfatal violent victimization on school property in 2016–17, or 33 incidents for every 1,000 students. “Violent victimization” includes simple assault, aggravated assault, robbery, sexual assault, and rape. A little more than one in five students aged 12­–18 reported being bullied at school in 2017, and 69 percent of those students reported being bullied multiple days of the school year. Another 15 percent reported being electronically bullied in 2017.

“Military parents go above and beyond when it comes to supporting the education of their children,” the report says. “And in certain ways, this is especially true when compared to the national average. Active-duty military parents are much more likely to say they have taken out a new loan or moved closer to school to support their child’s education. … Military parents also are more likely to say they have paid for tutoring, before/ after care services, or school transportation. Military families are making big sacrifices and going to great lengths to give their kids a quality education. These activities point to real challenges for families in terms of time and resources, and federal reform could amplify those positive supports even further.”

The best way to make life easier for these families is to provide them with easy access to ESA programs, which allow them to send their children to the school that best suits their family and their children’s unique education needs.

“Military families are making choices about whether to accept a particular duty station or depart the Armed Forces based in part on the quality of surrounding schools,” a 2017 Military Times survey concludes. “The men and women who wear the uniform are at risk of voting with their feet if the education of their children suffers because of their choice to serve the nation. … Elected officials at the state and federal levels must focus on providing the nearly one million military-connected children with high education standards that are consistent from school district to school district and state to state, and that properly prepare a child for career or college.”

With an ESA, state education funds allocated for a child are placed in a parent-controlled savings account. The ESAs could then be used to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools, textbooks and curriculum materials, online courses, tutoring services, educational therapies, computer hardware, or transportation costs. They could also be used to cover the fees required to take national standardized achievement tests, such as the SAT or ACT, as well as tuition, fees, and textbooks at postsecondary institutions.

If a full ESA program for all military families is not an option, a Child Safety Account (CSA) program she be made available to military parents who have safety concerns for their children in school. CSAs are a type of ESA program for parents who feel, for whatever reason, their child’s school is unsafe for their child. A CSA would empower parents to transfer their children immediately to the safe schools of their choice within or beyond their resident public school districts—including public district, charter, and virtual schools—as well as private and parochial schools. CSA funds could also be used to pay for homeschooling expenses.

Copious empirical research on private school choice initiatives shows these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Furthermore, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. 

Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs such as ESAs improve the mental health of participating students.

“Military families have already sacrificed so much for their country and … for the education and well-being of their children,” the authors note in the original survey. “Our survey findings indicate policy influencers and policymakers have a real opportunity to address military families’ preferences for personalized student learning and greater access to options in K–12 education.”

The authors are correct. There is no time like the present to help ease the burdens of these courageous men and women. ESAs, CSAs, school vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships should be easily available for these families. For our servicemen and veterans, it is the least we can do.

The following documents provide more information about education choice.

2019 Surveying the Military: What America’s Active-Duty Service Members and Spouses Think about Military Life and K–12 Education
In this report, authors Paul DiPerna, Lindsey Burke and Drew Catt share the results of a 2019 online survey of 1,295 active-duty military service members and their spouses to gain a better understanding of the experiences and views of military families in America toward K-12 education; and to expand on EdChoice’s first military survey in 2017.

Surveying the Military: What America’s Service Members, Veterans, and Their Spouses Think About K–12 Education and the Profession
In this report, EdChoice share the results of a 2017 survey of 1,200 active-duty military service members, veterans, and their spouses to help policymakers and the public better understand this important constituency’s perspective on K­–12 education, school choice policies, and the military profession.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2018
This report from the National Center for Education Statistics covers topics such as victimization, teacher injury, bullying and electronic bullying, school conditions, fights, weapons, availability and student use of drugs and alcohol, student perceptions of personal safety at school, and criminal incidents at postsecondary institutions. Indicators of crime and safety are compared across different population subgroups and over time. Data on crimes that occur away from school are offered as a point of comparison, when available.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

The 123s of School Choice
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

2018 Schooling in America Survey: Public Opinion on K–12 Education, Parent and Teacher Experiences, Accountability, and School Choice
This annual survey from EdChoice, conducted in partnership with Braun Research, Inc., measures public opinion and awareness on a range of K–12 education topics, including parents’ schooling preferences, educational choice policies, and the federal government’s role in education. The survey also records response levels, differences, and intensities for citizens located across the country and in a variety of demographic groups.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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