A federal appeals court Thursday upheld a state law that waives university tuition for military veterans who enlisted while living in Texas.
The opinion by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr., who last year said that Texas had to pay the education costs of a decorated veteran who had enlisted in his home state of Georgia, moved to Texas in 2004 and enrolled in the University of Houston’s law school in 2012.
State officials appealed, fearing Werlein’s ruling would greatly expand the benefit, costing Texas taxpayers millions of dollars.
Under the Hazlewood Act, first passed in 1923, honorably discharged veterans who enlist from Texas can attend public state universities for up to 150 hours of tuition-free credit. The program’s cost was already rising dramatically — from $169 million in 2014 to an estimated $379 million in 2019 — after a 2009 change let veterans pass the tuition benefits on to their children.
Writing for the appeals court, Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod said the Texas program reasonably meets the state’s goal of encouraging residents to finish high school — a prerequisite for military service — by offering an educational benefit for use after their service had ended.
“Offering Hazlewood benefits to veterans who first enter Texas after completing their service would not advance” the state’s interest, Elrod wrote.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called the ruling a victory for taxpayers, veterans and the Legislature’s authority to set state policy.
“Education is vital in (veterans’) transition back to civilian life, and today’s ruling allows Texas to exercise its sovereign right to encourage Texas students to finish high school, volunteer for military service and bring their skills back to Texas to pursue higher education,” he said.
An effort to tighten eligibility standards for the children of veterans to rein in the cost of the program failed at the end of the 2015 legislative session.