They say changes to a Virginia veterans families program 'felt like a betrayal'

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Posted at 5:49 PM, May 16, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has signed an Executive Directive to study a program that helps disabled and deceased military veterans' family members attend university. The move comes as advocates for the program are crying foul after changes to it were made in the state budget approved earlier this week.

"We are concerned about this," said Stuart McFaden. "Very much so."

McFaden and Kayla Owen said the latest development surrounding the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program (VMSDEP) will impact their veteran families and many others.

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Stuart McFaden and Kayla Owen

"Bottom line, it raises the cost for some families exponentially," Owen said. She is the co-founder of Friends of the VMSDEP, formed to oppose the changes as they came to light during the budget process

The program, run by the Virginia Department of Veterans Service (VDVS) in partnership with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) covers eight semesters of in-state tuition for children and spouses of permanently disabled veterans or for those missing, killed, or prisoners of war.

But language in the approved budget includes several changes including moving oversight to SCHEV; requiring other local, state, and federal funding options be used first; and only covering undergraduate degrees.

"In addition to specifically enumerate that there is an expected family contribution prior to putting in a single dollar is very alarming," Owen said.

The language included a grandfather clause, but had an effective date of Wednesday -- two days after the budget was passed.

Owen, the wife of a disabled veteran, had planned to further her education to become a nurse practitioner but said she no longer qualifies. McFaden is a disabled veteran from the United States Marine Corps and is unsure if his high school senior is grandfathered in.

The same night the grandfather clause went into effect, Youngkin signed the Executive Director that tasked SCHEV to lead a stakeholder task force to review the program "to help inform the development of guidance and other materials that minimize the impact on military and veteran families to the greatest extent possible. Additionally, the task force will consider further program changes and provide recommendations to address any unintended consequences of the reforms recently passed by the General Assembly."

Youngkin said the task force will report recommendations before next year's enrollment deadline.

Lawmakers had included similar language in their compromise budget earlier this year, which Youngkin proposed pausing and to allow for a study instead (those were rejected). When asked if Youngkin advocated for the pause and study during the negotiations on the budget deal approved this week, his spokesperson told CBS 6:

"Governor Youngkin addressed this issue in his budget amendments by removing the General Assembly’s eligibility changes and replacing them with a work group that included military families; the amendments were not accepted. Governor Youngkin is eager to work with all stakeholders, which will include Gold Star families, legislators, members of the military, veterans, and institutions of higher education."

Youngkin noted in the directive that while $40-million is in the budget to support schools with VMSDEP costs, he noted those costs have ballooned in the past five years.

He said enrollment in the program has increased by 341% (1,385 students in 2018-19 to 6,107 in 2022-23) and costs have increased 444% ($11.9-million in 2018-19 to $64.8-million in 2022-23). These echoed similar concerns raised about the program by SCHEV and some state lawmakers.

"This rate of growth made it difficult for institutions to make budget projections and planning, and is expected to result in higher tuition charges for all students. SCHEV recommended that legislators consider either amending the program or providing financial offsets, or a combination of the two," said SCHEV Interim Director of Finance Policy & Innovation and Associate Director for Financial Aid Lee Andes in a statement. "Now that the changes are official, SCHEV will work in conjunction with the administration and various stakeholders to develop program guidance based on the new language. The most immediate impact will be the requirement that students complete the federal FAFSA form; however, since the language exempts current students and those having already committed to fall 2024 enrollment, we anticipate that the new language will have minimal other impact until new students enrolling spring of 2025 and thereafter."

"We, on this side of the aisle, are very committed to getting it right and we have made a huge strides and improvement in Virginia," said State Senator Jeremy McPike, D - Prince William, who carried legislation to expand the program in 2019. "Our idea was to make sure that undergrad opportunities are made for all Virginians and those veterans families who have served. However, that program has grown and paying for med schools and paying for doctoral programs, many other things beyond the original scope of intent. And so I do think there are probably some curbing and reforms that are needed to make sure those resources are available to every Virginia's veteran family as their budget constraints tighten."

However, advocates say it's being done in the wrong order.

"Let's move it to a study. Let's figure out exactly what we need to make this program successful and sustainable moving forward," Owen said, who added she is critical of SCHEV's data and the decision to have them lead the study.

"This is a earned benefit for their service to the nation, and the injuries they suffered through their service to our nation," Del. Mike Cherry, R - Colonial Heights, added.

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Mike Cherry

Cherry was among several lawmakers from both parties to speak against the change on Monday and said he and others are working on legislation the would the restore the original program language and study possible changes for next year.

"And fix it the right way not kind of haphazardly the way it was done through the budgeting process," said Cherry.

Cherry said the plan is if lawmakers return for a continuation of Monday's special session to address skill games, they would have this legislation ready to go and take it up then.

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