Virginia House Speaker Confirms Special Session on Military Tuition Program

Speaker Don Scott talks
Speaker Don Scott talks about the positive impact the Commonwealth’s Operation Ceasefire has had on decreasing gun violence during a press conference March 20, 2024, at Norfolk’s Slover Library in Virginia. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

NORFOLK, Virginia — Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Don Scott said state lawmakers will return to Richmond later this month to address recent changes to a state program that covers higher education costs for some military families.

It will be to discuss the Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program, which provides a tuition waiver and an annual stipend to spouses and children of veterans who are killed, missing in action, taken prisoner or at least 90% permanently disabled as a result of military service or combat. But through the budget process this year, the program was scaled back to rein in ballooning tuition waiver costs, which universities have had to cover.

Scott, D-Portsmouth, said he filed the request with the clerk on Wednesday to send out a note to lawmakers about reconvening and determining how to handle the program. He told The Virginian-Pilot Thursday that the session is slated for the last week of June, and he anticipates it won’t take longer than half a day to sort out.

Scott said it’s an issue that’s important to “get it right” and ensure the program be sustainable for those who benefit.

“Hopefully, when we do this, people will understand that the way the program is designed now is not sustainable. And that we have to make some changes,” Scott said. “But it has to be done in a thoughtful, careful, deliberative way, and that’s what I want to do.”

While there have been some calls for the General Assembly to reconvene to take up skill games legislation, Scott said the military program is the only thing that will be on the docket for a formal discussion during the called session.

The call for a special session comes after public outcry on the changes made to the tuition waiver program that scaled back applicability. Under changes adopted in the state budget, applicants would have to be Virginia residents, the waiver could only be used for undergraduate degrees, and qualifying undergraduate students will have to apply for and use other eligible federal and state financial aid first.

Lawmakers also allocated $40 million in state money to help cover the cost of the program over two years, marking the first time funding has been allocated to offset institutions’ loss of revenue from the tuition waiver.

The reforms were recommended by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to rein in the tuition waivers’ cost, which the council said nearly quadrupled from $12 million in 2019 to $46.3 million in 2022. Hampton Roads universities, and others across the state, have been forced to absorb the lost revenue or spread the cost of the waiver to other students.

Advocates for the program have been critical of the way the major changes to the program were made through the budget process rather than stand alone legislation. They have said the changes are turning what they regard as an earned benefit into need-based aid.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced last week that he wants the General Assembly to return in June to restore the program to its former status. Meanwhile, a stakeholder task force is working to address “unintended consequences” of the changes by studying ways to get VMSDEP costs under control. The task force is set to have its first meeting Monday.

Scott, a U.S. Navy veteran himself, criticized the political “posturing” around the issue, noting that it’s been a discussion in the works, including with the governor, since the state budget was passed in mid-May, despite current framing from some Republicans that they’re the ones demanding the session. Scott said issues that impact veterans shouldn’t be politicized, adding that both Youngkin and the GOP approved a budget that included the changes.

Additionally, Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, filed a bill this year that included many of the same changes and the governor’s backing.

“Everybody has known we’re coming back,” Scott said. “All of them.”


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