Facts and Updates: Making Sense of the Department of State Education Allowance
An understanding of education allowances is crucial for Foreign Service families. Here is an introduction.
BY MARYBETH HUNTER
Many Foreign Service parents spend an enormous amount of time determining which posts have the best schools for their children. These are delicate decisions that have a large impact on family life. We hope this article will help inform families about school options, as well as the rules and regulations that govern the particulars of both school selection and cost reimbursement.
Parents serving overseas may be eligible to receive an education allowance to help cover the cost of their children’s education. The education allowance is designed to assist in defraying education costs at post that would normally be provided free of charge by public schools in the United States.
Think about what is normally provided in a public school in America, and this will give you a reasonably accurate idea of what you can expect to have reimbursed under the education allowance. Tuition and books, yes. Afterschool activities or band instruments, no.
To understand a bit more about education allowances, and to find out about recent allowance updates, the Family Liaison Office spoke with the Department of State’s Office of Allowances (referred to as “Allowances” for the purpose of this article).
An employee has freedom of choice in school selection with reimbursement up to the designated “at post” and “away from post” rates.
FLO: Which government employees are eligible for an education allowance? Do all agencies follow the Department of State education allowance regulations?
ALLOWANCES: Any U.S. direct-hire employee serving overseas with school-aged children may be eligible to receive an education allowance under the Department of State Standardized Regulations, Section 270. All federal government agencies follow these regulations, although each agency may have its own supplemental regulations that further clarify or restrict the allowance.
FLO: How is “at post” education allowance for the school year determined? Why is the “at post” allowance for many posts listed as $150?
ALLOWANCES: The Office of Overseas Schools (OS), one of our sister offices in the Bureau of Administration, first determines if there is at least one school at post that offers education reasonably comparable to U.S. public schools. If so, OS will designate the least expensive adequate school as the base school. Usually, this base school is a private school.
Then, Allowances establishes an “at post” education allowance rate, determined by an analysis of school costs, such as tuition and local transportation. The post submits these costs through regular surveys to update the allowance as prices go up or down. If OS determines that no school at post is adequate, we use $150 as a dummy/ placeholder rate because the default allowance in this situation is “away from post.”
While the Office of Allowances sets the overall policy and rates, it does not provide funding; nor does it approve the disbursement of funds.
FLO: How is the “away from post” education allowance determined?
ALLOWANCES: When a school at post is deemed adequate, the “away from post” rate is identical to the “at post” rate.
However, when no school at post is adequate, Allowances establishes a higher “away from post” rate to defray the cost of attending a school (often, but not always, a boarding school) away from post. The rate is based on tuition, room and board, and airfare three times a year to and from school.
FLO: Many countries have more than one school option for parents. Is the education allowance limited to enrollment in the designated base school?
ALLOWANCES: No. An employee has freedom of choice in school selection with reimbursement up to the designated “at post” and “away from post” rates. Such flexibility in choice of schools is important to remember, so that when decision-making time comes, you can move forward with the confidence that you can seek reimbursement even if the school is not the base school used by the U.S. mission community.
While school choice is often available, the cost of alternate choices is only reimbursed up to prescribed limits in the DSSR. Section 272.3 discusses school selection and has a number of instructive examples. Our website also has a comprehensive FAQ section that covers this topic. Parents should know these levels of reimbursement and be mindful of the financial implications.
Likewise, an “away from post” allowance may be available, depending on the country-specific rates. The post financial management officer (FMO) can discuss post specifics and the mechanics of education allowances with parents early on to ensure they understand how the relevant DSSR education rules apply to the facts and circumstances of each case.
The annual round trip may originate from either the school or the employee’s foreign post of assignment.
FLO: Who ultimately approves education allowance reimbursements?
ALLOWANCES: The certifying officer at post, normally the FMO, approves education allowance reimbursements. While the Office of Allowances sets the overall policy and rates, it does not provide funding; nor does it approve the disbursement of funds.
FLO: Have there been recent allowance changes that families should be aware of?
ALLOWANCES: The DSSR has been updated in the past few years to include such things as the reimbursement of school fees for the rental of computer equipment. See DSSR Section 277 for a complete list of reimbursable education expenses.
Education and educational travel are just two of the many allowances or benefits provided for in the DSSR.
FLO: One educational gap typically of great interest to parents is American history. By the time kids have entered grade school or junior high, many parents realize that the local international school simply has no U.S. history class or resources. What can parents do to supplement the school’s curriculum?
ALLOWANCES: Expenses for a supplemental U.S. history class can be reimbursed in addition to the authorized “at post” education allowance. For example, if a parent needs to buy a U.S. history textbook and hire a private tutor to teach U.S. history because that subject is not provided at their child’s school, the cost of the textbook and the tutor may be reimbursable as supplementary instruction.
See DSSR 276.9 for a complete list of circumstances in which supplementary instruction may be reimbursed. Also note that reimbursement for supplementary instruction is currently limited to $4,100 per year.
FLO: Are there any recent updates to the educational travel allowance?
ALLOWANCES: Up to now, we have been talking about allowances for primary and secondary school education under DSSR 270.
When talking about the educational travel benefit under DSSR 280, we are switching gears to talk about the one annual round trip of transportation between the post and school a child is attending full-time, either at the secondary or postsecondary level.
Rather than the previous restriction to the United States, the school may be anywhere in the world now. Also, the annual round trip may originate from either the school or the employee’s foreign post of assignment.
Parents sometimes get confused about the difference between the educational travel benefit (DSSR 280) and the transportation component related to attending an “away from post” boarding school (DSSR 270). The latter falls under the education allowance.
One cannot claim both the education allowance and educational travel benefit for the same child at the same time.
In fact, there is no need to use the educational travel benefit for a student attending boarding school, because the “away from post“ education allowance rate discussed earlier includes the cost of travel to and from the boarding school. This built-in travel cost is sometimes referred to as the “Education Allowance transportation component” to distinguish it from “Educational Travel.”
For example, a student might use the educational travel benefit when travelling from a foreign post to an accredited full time college or university, either inside or outside the United States.
When claiming an allowance, your human resources officer at post can often help in putting together an application package, while the FMO is often the one responsible for approving reimbursement.
FLO: Is there anything else readers should know about the Office of Allowances?
ALLOWANCES: Education and educational travel are just two of the many allowances or benefits provided for in the DSSR. Our office also works with each post to evaluate and set rates for the post (hardship) differential, post allowance (cost-of-living allowance) and overseas per diem, to name a few.
The DSSR and how it applies to a particular situation can be complicated at times, but we have an excellent collection of FAQs on our website (https://aoprals.state.gov). The website also has useful links to other offices and resources such as Overseas Schools, Medical Services (MED) and Travel and Transportation Management (TTM). Staff in these offices can answer questions that are not specifically allowance questions, but often come up in the context of allowances.
In addition, if readers have a specific question about the DSSR, they can contact us at AllowancesO@state.gov.
It is probably worth mentioning again that while our office sets policy and rates, we do not control funding; nor are we involved in the reimbursement process. Depending on the allowance, funding usually comes from the regional bureau or a centrally funded account.
When it comes to claiming an allowance, your human resources officer at post can often help in putting together an application package, while the FMO is often the one responsible for approving reimbursement.
FLO’s Education and Youth (E&Y) Team works closely with the Office of Allowances and can help parents find the portion of the DSSR that covers the education allowance. Contact E&Y at FLOAskEducation@state.gov, by phone at (202) 647-1076, or online at www.state.gov/flo/education.
Editor’s Note: The Office of Allowances deals purely with regulations and would not comment on Special Needs Education Allowance processing. The FSJ will run an update on issues surrounding SNEA processing in a future article.