A Strange Budget Cut

By BOB HERBERT - NYT, February 20, 2003 - original

Say it ain't so, Mr. President.

You might think that with the country gearing up for war this would be the wrong time absolutely the worst time to cut federal school aid for the children of men and women in the armed forces.

Nobody would do that, right? Right?

Alas.

Undeterred by the anxiety and hardships faced by youngsters whose parents may be heading overseas, and perhaps into combat, President Bush has proposed substantial cuts in the government's Impact Aid program, which provides badly needed funds to school districts that have a significant number of students from military families.

The program was established during the Truman administration. When a school district is in an area that has military installations or other types of federal property, it is cut off from a range of revenue sources residential, business and industrial property taxes, for example that would have been available if the land and facilities were privately owned and developed. The districts are still obligated, however, to provide schooling for children whose parents are stationed or work at such facilities.

The idea of Impact Aid is to at least partially offset this revenue shortfall. In school districts that serve a large number of military families, Impact Aid is a crucial component of the annual budget.

Case in point: The Virginia Beach public schools. The school system has students whose parents are assigned to Fort Story, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base, the Oceana Naval Air Station and other military installations. It receives about $12 million in Impact Aid. President Bush's budget proposal would cut that by more than half an estimated $7.5 million, according to the district's superintendent, Dr. Timothy Jenney.

"That would be fairly devastating for us," Dr. Jenney said in an interview. "We're very lean with our operating funds, the lowest per pupil in the area, and certainly well below the state average. So we're not flush with money to begin with. And with the economy right now, people are not predisposed to increasing their taxes."

Under Mr. Bush's budget proposal, Impact Aid would continue for youngsters whose parents live on a military base, but not for those whose families live off base. This is a specious distinction that does not take into account the overall deficit in tax revenues and the special needs of military youngsters.

The Virginia Beach school system has more than 26,000 children from military families, the vast majority of them off base. And like military youngsters everywhere, they are living through a traumatic period.

"There's a fair amount of anxiety among our children," said Dr. Jenney, "especially at the elementary level, from the kids whose parents are now deployed, or those who hear that their mom or dad has been called up and the deployment is imminent. So we've had to ratchet up all of our comprehensive services psychological and guidance services to work with our parents and the community. It's been a burden."

Just last week a gung-ho President Bush stood before thousands of sailors at a naval station near Jacksonville, Fla., and declared, "In this challenging period, great tasks lie ahead for the Navy and for our entire military."

If that's so, how do you then turn around and tell your military personnel: oh, by the way, we're going to cut the financial support we've been providing for your kids in school?

Virginia Beach is just one of many districts across the country that will be hit hard if the president's proposed cuts actually take effect. They would have to make up tens of millions of dollars in lost federal aid.

Presidents eager for budget savings have frequently proposed cuts in Impact Aid. Congress has almost always resisted. What makes Mr. Bush's proposal so potentially devastating is that it comes when he is marshaling the nation for war, when the federal government is running up record budget deficits, when most states are struggling with huge budget deficits of their own, when school districts across the country are already suffering financially, and when both houses of Congress are controlled by the president's party.

Who could imagine that in a wartime atmosphere we would consider leaving the children of the military behind?