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Battle Ahead for Veterans' Education Bill

April 29, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

Hundreds of veterans and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle got together today on the steps of the Capitol Building to rally for the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2007, a bill designed to expand education opportunities for returning soldiers. It was an impressive outpouring, and the bill’s probably coming to the floors of the Senate and House soon as a part of an upcoming war funding bill. But for all its broad and bipartisan support (it has 57 Senate co-sponsors and 241 in the House) it may be vetoed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called the bill unworkable and President Bush has promised to veto the whole war funding bill if Congress puts in any extras.

The leading Senate sponsors of the bill, Jim Webb (D-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) make their case for the bill in a New York Times op-ed:

>Veterans today have only the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which requires a service member to pay $100 a month for the first year of his or her enlistment in order to receive a flat payment for college that averages $800 a month. This was a reasonable enlistment incentive for peacetime service, but it is an insufficient reward for wartime service today. It is hardly enough to allow a veteran to attend many community colleges.
>It would cover only about 13 percent of the cost of attending Columbia, 42 percent at the University of Hawaii, 14 percent at Washington and Lee, 26 percent at U.C.L.A. and 11 percent at Harvard Law School.
>College costs have skyrocketed, and a full G.I. Bill for those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan would be expensive. But Congress has recently appropriated $19 billion next year for federal education grants purely on the basis of financial need. A G.I. Bill for those who have given so much to our country, often including repeated combat tours, should be viewed as an obligation.

Their bill is designed to modernize veterans’ education benefits, and bring them on par with what was provided after World War II. Here’s an overview of how it would work, as provided by Senator Webb’s fact sheet (PDF):

  • Increased educational benefits would be available to all members of the military who have served on active duty since September 11, 2001, including activated reservists and National Guard. To qualify, veterans must have served at least three to thirty-six months of qualified active duty, beginning on or after September 11, 2001.
  • The bill provides for educational benefits to be paid in amounts linked to the amount of active duty served in the military after 9/11. Generally, veterans would receive some amount of assistance proportional to their service for 36 months, which equals four academic years. Veterans would still be eligible to receive any incentive-based supplemental educational assistance from their military branch for which they qualify.
  • Benefits provided under the bill would allow veterans pursuing an approved program of education to receive payments covering the established charges of their program, up to the cost of the most expensive instate public school, plus a monthly stipend equivalent to housing costs in their area. The bill would allow additional payments for tutorial assistance, as well as licensure and certification tests.
  • The bill would create a new program in which the government will agree to match, dollar for dollar, any voluntary additional contributions to veterans from institutions whose tuition is more expensive than the maximum educational assistance provided under S.22.
  • Veterans would have up to fifteen years, compared to ten years under the Montgomery G.I. Bill, after they leave active duty to use their educational assistance entitlement. Veterans would be barred from receiving concurrent assistance from this program and another similar program.

The main concern about the bill seems to be that it could cause people to leave the military earlier because of the juicy benefits they would have waiting for them. John McCain (R-AZ) has introduced a competing GI bill that would encourage servicemembers to remain in the military by providing a moderate increase in benefits initially, but a drastic increase after 12 years of service.

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