TEXT OF COMMENTARY
Tess Vigeland: A new GI bill is back on the drawing boards. Democrats tucked it into the war spending bill that already passed the House. The Senate is expected to take up the measure this week.
It would more than double the current education benefit given to military service members -- up to $90,000 -- but commentator Kim Clark says the legislation has divided some of the nation's most influential veterans.
Kim Clark: Everybody in Washington pretty much agrees on one thing: Veterans' education benefits need to be improved.
The standard under the GI Bill right now is about $10,000 an academic year. Unfortunately, the total cost of attending a typical public university is more than $15,000 and private schools can cost more than three times that. No wonder fewer than a third of the first Gulf War veterans have gone on to college -- they can't afford it.
But for the last several months, two of the nation's most influential veterans -- President Bush and Senator John McCain -- have been arguing for only a modest increase in benefits -- about $3,000 a year. They say anything more would be too expensive and might lure experienced soldiers away from reenlistment. They're following in some impressive political footsteps: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Ford, all World War II veterans, also opposed efforts to increase veterans' education benefits at some point during their term.
But the popularity of the GI Bill appears to be overwhelming these concerns. Congress is about to pass a compromise bill sponsored by Senator Jim Webb, who is also a decorated Vietnam Veteran. It's backed by major veteran groups like the American Legion and has drawn so much bipartisan support that President Bush now says he'll sign it. It would cover full tuition and housing even at a school like UCLA, where the cost of attendance now exceeds $23,000 a year.
Will this be expensive? Sure. Will it reduce reenlistment? It very well might. But the Government Accountability Office says it would increase recruitment. By opening college gates, the original GI Bill laid the foundation of the Middle Class prosperity of the 50s and 60s. Studies show that every dollar spent on education benefits after World War II paid back at least $5 in increased taxes and economic growth.
If we can't afford to give our veterans a chance at success in life, how can we afford to ask our soldiers to brave death?
Vigeland: Kim Clark covers money for U.S. News and World Report.