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For more than half a century, the federal government has set aside money each year to help local school districts pay for educating students with U.S. military connections.
But the number of military dependents enrolled in public schools is not counted by the Department of Defense — nor by schools themselves during student registration. Instead, once a year all parents are asked to voluntarily fill out Impact Aid surveys to establish if the schools should receive federal aid for educating their children.
The difficulty of getting accurate survey results to track students could be costing Hawaii millions of dollars in federal funding each year.
Some families don’t want to answer the questions for privacy reasons. They don’t know the legal address for their workplace on base. Parents are unavailable because they’re deployed. Forms get crumpled in the backpacks of older children and never even make it home.
“The (U.S.) Department of Education still hasn’t kind of moved into the 21st century,” said Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director at the National Military Family Association. “It’s really surprising in this day and age where everything is online and electronic that there isn’t any way for people to fill this out except that piece of paper.”
Last year alone, more than 40,000 Impact Aid surveys were not returned to the Hawaii Department of Education.
No one knows for sure how many of those went to the homes of service members or other homes that might qualify for the school to receive federal assistance. But if even 10 percent of qualifying students are missing from the count, that could cost the state’s cash-strapped schools $5 million, said Congressman Mark Takai.
“That’s real money,” Takai said.
Takai tried for nearly two decades as a state legislator to change the way students are tracked for the federal Impact Aid program.
This year, working at the federal level, he may finally be getting close.
Hawaii, which has one of the highest per-capita military populations in the country, has long counted on federal funding to help pay for school expenses.
Congress created the Impact Aid program in 1950 after piecemeal attempts during World War II to appropriate funds for districts heavily impacted by an influx of military families.
The idea of Impact Aid is to alleviate some — but not all — of the expense of educating children whose parents live or work on federal land and possibly pay fewer taxes to the state. The program also includes students living on Native American tribal lands and children in subsidized low income housing.
The legislation laid out a complex formula for calculating the payouts for each type of student, including students with disabilities.
Last year, Hawaii had 23,736 federally connected students, according to the survey results. Of those, 13,978 were military dependents. That’s far lower than the estimated 21,000 to 25,000 school-age military dependents living in the state in 2012, according to a study by John Hopkins University.
Hawaii gets $38 million to $50 million a year in Impact Aid funding. In recent years, that money has helped the state with a variety of expenses, including paying for substitute teachers and buying new curriculum materials.
Arizona, which is home to large swaths of tribal land, is the biggest recipient of Impact Aid in the nation.
The program was never meant to cover the total cost of educating an eligible child, said state Rep. Roy Takumi.
Over the years, proposals to do just that have been bandied about in Congress. One suggestion was for states to charge tuition to the Department of Defense for each military child enrolled, but that idea was quickly tossed out as unconstitutional.
Another idea that was more popular with military families in Hawaii was to turn over schools located on military bases to the DOD, which operates schools both abroad and in several other states.
If even 10 percent of qualifying students are missing from the count, that could cost the state’s cash-strapped schools $5 million, said Congressman Mark Takai.
While this would address both funding issues and a longstanding perception among many military families that Hawaii schools are subpar compared to mainland and DOD-run schools, the idea was studied in the 1990s and deemed both impractical and legally challenging.
In the meantime, the Impact Aid program has been underfunded since the late 1960s.
From 1972 to 1993, when the Hawaii Legislature commissioned a report on military schools and the practicality of turning over the education of military children to the Department of Defense, the state spent roughly $1.8 billion more than it received in Impact Aid educating military dependents, according to the Legislative Reference Bureau report.
Currently the Impact Aid program is funded at about 60 percent of what Congress considers its total obligation. Hawaii gets about $2,000 on average for each federally connected student. The full cost of educating each child is roughly $13,000 a year.
“The federal government needs to pay its fair share based on a commitment it made decades ago that they were going to help provide funding for military children in school districts,” Takai said.
The congressman cautioned, however, that “you have to look at the military as a whole. Clearly the money generated by the presence of the military in total is a big part of our state’s economy … we are definitely getting tremendous benefit from the military presence.”
And the military tries to help schools in other ways, too. There’s a military liaison assigned to the state Board of Education. The Army assigns soldiers to serve as crossing guards at DOE schools located on bases. It also partners with more than three dozen schools in the state for activities like “Fitness Fridays,” vision screenings and other volunteer work.
The DOE sends out its Impact Aid survey in September, and then tries to target areas where federally impacted students are most likely to be enrolled to encourage fuller participation.
At schools located on base, the vast majority of the students are military-connected so it’s easier to get a sense of how many eligible kids are missing from the survey and track their parents down, Wheeler Elementary School Principal Troy Tamura said.
Schools follow up a few months after the survey to try to get parents to turn them in or provide missing information on forms already submitted.
“The Hawaii Department of Education takes this task very seriously and puts a tremendous amount of effort into making sure we get these cards back to make we are getting this important aid revenue,” Assistant Superintendent Amy Kunz said.
One of the easiest solutions would be for the U.S. Department of Education to allow Hawaii to count students by asking a few more questions during enrollment.
The military has increased its efforts to help the state DOE get survey results. Commanders now provide the DOE with a letter that accompanies the form for on-base families, urging them to fill it out.
This year that letter will include the correct base address for parents to use.
Takai is not optimistic about getting Congress to increase funding to the Impact Aid program in coming years.
But he does think there are a few simple ways to fix the issue of underreporting.
One of the easiest solutions would be for the U.S. DOE to allow Hawaii to count students by asking a few more questions during enrollment. Other states have been pressing for this as well, and a few small districts are piloting such efforts. Hawaii is upgrading its student tracking system in order to do that, Kunz said, and hopes to convince the U.S. DOE to let it pilot a digital system in the next few years.
Allowing schools to collect information during enrollment is a simple solution that school districts across the country would welcome, said John Brummel, superintendent of the Hawaii DOE’s Central Oahu Complex Area.
Another fix would be for the DOD to start using its Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System — currently in place for health care enrollment — to track school enrollment as well.
Through Takai’s efforts, Congress set aside money to fund a DOD study next year on the feasibility of that.