Monday, July 15, 2024

At Task Force Meeting, Military Families Rip ‘Ugly Side of Virginia’s Government’

The first meeting of the Preserving Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program Task Force drew a sizable crowd to the Virginia War Memorial. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Kristen Fenty of Virginia Beach says her daughter Lauren only got one moment of physical proximity to the father she never got a chance to know. It happened when she was a baby, still small enough to be lifted onto her father’s casket.

As a room full of government officials listened Monday, Fenty told the group that her daughter — who was 28 days old in 2006 when her dad, Lt. Col. Joe Fenty, was killed in a helicopter crash — is now 18, preparing to go to college and hoping to eventually go to medical school.

But a tuition waiver program Fenty assumed would help pay for her daughter’s education, the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, has been thrown into limbo due to state leaders’ controversial efforts to cut the program’s growing costs.

“Societies that do not share the cost of war topple,” Fenty said, adding that she hopes the Virginia General Assembly will “right this wrong.”

At the first meeting of a bipartisan task force Gov. Glenn Youngkin convened to study the VMSDEP program and its growing financial impact on Virginia’s public higher education system, Youngkin administration officials and General Assembly members said they were committed to listening to military families and see their well-being as a top policy priority. Fenty was one of several military spouses and veterans selected to serve on the task force, which she called “both an honor and an agony.”

Over the course of several hours Monday afternoon at the Virginia War Memorial building in Richmond, public officials mostly took a rhetorical beating from military veterans and Gold Star spouses who said they felt betrayed by an insular, out-of-touch political class.

“These past two months have shown me the ugly side of Virginia’s government,” said task force member Donna Lewis, a mother of three whose husband was killed in combat in Iraq. “Countless senators and delegates we met with said they were told the impact on our families would be minimal.”

Lewis said she hoped the task force would be productive, but was skeptical after watching what she called “institutional betrayal in its highest form.”

The Virginia War Memorial in Richmond. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

General Assembly leaders have pointed to data showing the VMSDEP program, which provides tuition waivers to spouses and children of military members killed or permanently disabled as a result of their service, has grown exponentially over the last five years. With VMSDEP beneficiaries essentially given the opportunity to go to college for free, some Virginia universities have raised concerns that they can’t continue absorbing the costs of enrolling a growing number of VMSDEP beneficiaries that don’t pay tuition. Those added costs, some policymakers have argued, will ultimately be felt by taxpayers at large or by tuition-paying students who might have less ability to pay than families receiving military benefits.

According to data presented by state officials, VMSDEP participation has grown by nearly 350% over the last five years, jumping from 1,400 students in 2019 to 6,400 in 2023.

The revised program imposes a stricter Virginia residency requirement, prevents the waivers from being used for advanced degrees or a second undergraduate degree and requires participants to first pursue other forms of financial aid and only use VMSDEP for remaining costs.

The attempted trimming of the program enraged military veterans and their families, who have bristled at the idea they’re becoming a burden on public universities that they say don’t seem particularly hard up for cash. Supporters of the VMSDEP program also contend it’s a benefit earned through the sacrifices of adults and children alike and shouldn’t be tied to a family’s ability to pay like other forms of financial aid. Policymakers’ attempts to shield current VMSDEP beneficiaries from the changes fell short, the critics argue, by being unclear and leaving many families uncertain about their status.

The General Assembly is already planning to reconvene later this month to undo the changes to the VMSDEP program and take a closer look at its eligibility rules and how they could be reformed. The task force, made up of General Assembly members, cabinet officials, higher education officials, veteran services officials and military families themselves, is supposed to be studying VMSDEP and issuing recommendations for the 2025 legislative session.

“You have made numbers come alive,” Youngkin Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera told the crowd at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting. “And that’s what matters. And it’s emotional.”

House of Delegates leaders have specified their chamber will return on June 28 and intend to fully reverse the VMSDEP changes. Speaking with reporters after Monday’s meeting, House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, said he and others who supported the VMSDEP changes had sincere concerns about the program’s growth and were trying to look out for the state’s best interests.

“Obviously, from what we’re hearing, it went sideways,” Torian said. “We’re going to move forward. We’re going to address the concerns.”

The plan for the state Senate is less clear, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said the Senate expects to announce more detail later this week.

Senate Finance and Appropriations Chair Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, attended Monday’s task force meeting virtually and gave only brief introductory remarks.

“There is no stronger supporter of our military families than I am,” said Lucas.

The task force was part of Youngkin’s response to a furor that erupted when the VMSDEP changes were included in a bipartisan budget deal approved on May 13. Though changes to VMSDEP were on the table in the General Assembly’s regular session, the final budget deal was mostly crafted behind closed doors and approved quickly.

At the time, both parties were eager to get the overdue budget done and avert the prospect of a government shutdown come July 1. But Youngkin, who signed the budget, and the General Assembly, which passed it by a wide margin, are now under pressure to come back before July 1 to reverse the VMSDEP changes and restore the program to its former state.

The task force’s first meeting mostly focused on introductions and taking public comment, almost all of which was infused with indignation at the officials listening from the other side of the table.

Former U.S. Navy Seal Jason Redman, who was wounded in Iraq, criticized Virginia officials for what he described as backtracking on commitments to military veterans and their families. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

Jason Redman, a former U.S. Navy Seal and Old Dominion University graduate who was badly wounded in Iraq, said people signing up for military service are given assurances that, if the worst happens, their loved ones will be taken care of.

“You’re saying that it is too hard to sustain this program to families that have buried a loved one for your freedom,” Redman said. “To warriors who have endured loss of limb, eyesight, function, disfigurement and permanent disability. … This is appalling.”

Brian Smith, a military veteran who said he now works as an eighth grade civics teacher, said that during his service he could never make promises to his daughter that he would be there for any particular holiday or birthday. Expecting VMSDEP to cover college costs, he said, was a promise he thought could be kept.

“What lesson am I taking back to my eighth graders about government?,” he said. “Can you help me out with that?”

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