Youngkin calls for repeal of new limits on Va. college tuition program for military families

This article was reprinted with permission from Virginia Mercury

After attempting to rein in the skyrocketing costs of a state program that covers college expenses for some military families, Virginia leaders are discussing whether the move is proving so politically unpopular that they should return to Richmond to undo it.

Advocates for military families have called for a special General Assembly session to repeal the changes to eligibility rules for the Virginia Military Survivors & Dependents Education Program, which assists spouses and children of military members who were killed or severely disabled as a result of their service.

That’s an option under consideration by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and General Assembly leaders, but so far there doesn’t appear to be a consensus on whether the issue has caused a crisis worthy of immediate reversal.

In an exchange of letters Monday, Youngkin told Democratic legislators responsible for the state budget that they can either work with him on the particulars of a special session or he’ll call one himself.

“We can work together to repeal the adopted language within the current special session, or I will convene a concurrent special session,” Youngkin wrote to House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. “I look forward to continuing our productive conversations on this matter.”

Because the General Assembly is technically still in the special session convened earlier this year to finish the budget, legislative leaders can call the members back to the Capitol at any time. If Democratic leaders resist Youngkin’s push, the governor can call a new, overlapping special session.

Torian and Lucas had sent the governor their own letter earlier in the day indicating they felt the issue could wait until the 2025 General Assembly session because current program participants are covered by a “grandfather clause.”

“The grandfather clause effectively allows for current and new students for the coming summer or fall 2024 to be exempt from the reform measures,” Torian and Lucas wrote.

The Virginia Mercury obtained copies of both letters.

The Democratic lawmakers also pointed out that Youngkin has already convened a task force to study the issue and make “meaningful recommendations for consideration” next year.

The Youngkin administration has prepared draft legislation to repeal the VMSDEP changes, and the governor’s office said Youngkin is hoping to work with General Assembly leaders to have them pass it by June 30.

“Virginia military members, who have dedicated their lives to protecting our freedom, and their families will continue to be a top priority for the governor,” said Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez. “He is committed to reversing the eligibility changes and allowing the task force, which includes Gold Star families, legislators, members of the military, veterans and institutions of higher education, to make a comprehensive recommendation on a sustainable path forward that can be considered in 2025.”

The recently approved changes to VMSDEP were intended to address growing costs that lawmakers felt were becoming a financial burden for universities and other tuition payers. The program, which provides tuition waivers and stipends at public schools in Virginia, is also open to spouses and children of military members missing in action or taken captive.

The push to tighten eligibility for the program — which didn’t require participants to live in Virginia and allowed the benefit to be used for advanced degrees in addition to undergraduate studies — infuriated military families who say their benefits shouldn’t be on the chopping block at a time when Virginia’s budget seems relatively healthy.

A few weeks ago, it seemed the passage of Virginia’s overdue budget marked the end of big legislative battles in Virginia for the year. But the controversy over VMSDEP shows a new one might be emerging, as Youngkin sides with military families upset about the program’s overhaul and Democratic leaders face a choice over how strongly they should defend the policy change.

Opponents have portrayed the move as a blemish on Virginia’s reputation as a veteran-friendly state and an example of state government pushing significant policy initiatives with little transparency and public input.

Last week, Virginia’s Joint Leadership Council of Veteran Service Organizations, an official advisory body on veterans issues, voted unanimously to ask state leaders to hold a special session to repeal the changes.

“Much of the deliberation for these changes occurred without public input or dialogue,” the council said in a written statement. “This issue is too important to decide behind closed doors.”

The changes to VMSDEP were included in the bipartisan budget deal the Democratic-led General Assembly and Republican governor approved on May 13. The new budget takes effect July 1.

The deal was unveiled just a few days before the General Assembly’s May 13 budget vote. A standalone bill seeking to reform VMSDEP was introduced for the 2024 session, but it was scaled back to a study and, after clearing the state Senate, failed in the House. Policymakers pressed on with some of the changes the bill envisioned by incorporating them in the budget, a practice that frequently comes under fire as a way to push policy changes through with minimal public attention.

Lawmakers in both parties spoke in opposition to the VMSDEP changes ahead of the budget vote last month, but by then it was too late to make changes to a deal that had been worked out in closed-door negotiations. Youngkin told advocates he would work to prevent “unintended consequences” for military families, but proceeded to sign the budget that was already overdue.

Supporters of the changes have noted the tougher eligibility rules won’t affect current participants or anyone who had committed to a higher education institution by May 15. Advocates say those assurances ring hollow and don’t account for the complexity involved in making higher education plans.

Kayla Owen, a Stafford County mother of two and wife of a disabled Marine veteran, was hoping to use VMSDEP to enter a new field by getting a master’s degree in nursing. However, she first had to take prerequisite courses at a community college and is now worried the eligibility changes mean she’ll no longer be able to use VMSDEP for the nursing program since she hadn’t formally enrolled in it by May 15.

“There is immediate and irreparable harm being done to the community right now,” said Owen, 42. “Being a protected class means what? You get cut first?”

Though it’s existed in some form for decades, the costs of the VMSDEP program have risen dramatically in the last five years due to a 341% increase in the number of students participating. The number of participants has grown from about 1,400 in 2019 to 6,400 by 2023, according to state officials.

The program’s costs over that five-year period have ballooned 444%, rising from $11.9 million in the 2018-2019 academic year to $64.8 million in 2022-2023.

In an attempt to get that growth under control, the new budget imposed restrictions on the program that would require participants to live in Virginia, first seek other forms of financial aid and only allow the program to be used for undergraduate degrees.

The lack of limits raised concerns other families and taxpayers would end up footing a steep bill for a program that lets participants pursue advanced degrees, such as enrolling in law schools and medical schools, and has made Virginia a destination for out-of-state military families increasingly aware of the generous assistance. In 2023, roughly 20% of the tuition waivers were used by out-of-state students or covered graduate degrees, according to officials.

The data showing the program’s exponential growth was presented at a House Appropriations Committee meeting last week.

“Please let us not lose those significant points,” Torian said at that meeting. “There has been greater participation. The cost has escalated. What we’re seeking is to have sustainability for this program.”

The new budget included $40 million to support higher education waivers and mitigate the growing costs of the VMSDEP program, according to officials.

Opponents of the new eligibility rules say that if the state was concerned about high costs officials could have first done a thorough study of the program and given military families more time to adjust.

Springing the changes on families that have already endured hardship, said Stafford military veteran and advocate Caitlin Goodale-Porter, has been “catastrophic.”

“We have a stated objective to be veteran-friendly in Virginia,” Goodale-Porter said. “And we’re doing the exact opposite.”

Goodale-Porter was appointed to the state task force that will formally begin the process of studying VMSDEP at its first meeting June 10. That study could be helped, Goodale-Porter said, by political leaders undoing the changes they just made and starting the process anew.

“At this point they’ve gotten people so angry they’re talking about leaving the state,” she said. “And that hurts.”

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