Virginia military families fight for education benefits

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Military families fighting drastic changes to an education benefit told their stories to a Virginia task force in Richmond Monday.

The Virginia Military Survivors & Dependents Education Program offered full higher education tuition waivers for spouses and children of servicemembers killed or left severely disabled because of their service. Behind closed doors last month, Virginia's bipartisan budget deal drastically changed the eligibility for that benefit, rendering it useless for many who were promised it.

Hundreds packed inside the Virginia War Memorial to explain to the task force the burden Virginia's government created for military families and the families of law enforcement and other emergency responders.

Several state lawmakers are on the task force, and each has said they intend to reverse the changes they made and fully reinstate the benefits that were scaled back because, they say, of the rising cost to financially support the tuition waivers.

The families said they can't believe lawmakers would tell them they are too expensive to support after all they've sacrificed for the country.

"Few in the commonwealth have sacrificed more for this country than the veterans, first responders and families who have been impacted by this change,” Gold Star spouse Donna Lewis said. “The fact that the General Assembly, whose members have been largely insulated from the scars of war, did not believe our sacrifices were worthy of a thoughtful, thorough decision-making process before this language was drafted, feels like institutional betrayal in its cruelest form."

“Our intent is always to seek to do what’s best for the commonwealth … Did this particular program and what we did, did it go sideways? Obviously, from what we’re hearing, it went sideways,” Chair of the House Appropriations Committee Del. Luke Torian said.  

The General Assembly will reconvene for a special session on June 28 to restore the benefit program to the way it was and then, likely, will conduct a long-term sustainability study to figure out how to best fund these tuition waivers in the years to come.

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