Now, some leaders in the charter world, including the head of the nation’s largest charter school organization, are furious at them.
On Monday, the Trump administration released its 2021 budget proposal, and there was a gargantuan surprise in the Education Department’s plan for charter school funding.
It calls for the effective elimination of the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which has funded the expansion of charter schools since 1994 to the tune of $3.3 billion. Forty percent of operational charter schools — which are publicly funded but privately operated — were created with money from this program.
Instead of maintaining CSP as a discrete program, the administration is proposing it be lumped with nearly 30 other Education Department programs — including support for homeless students, civics education, magnet schools and school safety — into a single $19 billion block grant for states to use as they want on programs most important to them. The administration said it wants to give states more control of how they spend federal money while reducing the federal education footprint. States could use grant funding to expand charter schools, but other priorities would compete with it.
The administration’s main education priority doesn’t even show up in the Education Department’s proposed budget. Instead, it appears as a line item in the Treasury Department as a tax expenditure: $5 billion to give tax breaks for a program called the Education Freedom Scholarships, which would use public money for private and religious school education. The Education Department’s news release on the budget states this as the No. 1 education highlight from the budget.
Charter supporters were furious about the proposed budget — even if it has virtually no chance of being approved by Congress. Still, it signals what the administration cares the most about when it comes to education — and ensuring federal funding of charter schools isn’t it. That was not lost on Nina Rees, president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the largest charter organization in the country.
“President Trump has consistently said that school choice is a priority for his administration, but this budget, if enacted, would leave families in need with fewer school options,” she said in a statement. “The education vision put forward by this budget is chilling. It would provide — through the proposed ‘Education Freedom Scholarships’ tax credit — extra federal financial help for families to access private schools, while withdrawing support for public school choice for our most vulnerable families by doing away with the Charter Schools Program (CSP).”
Rich Buery Jr., chief of policy and public affairs at the KIPP Foundation, which runs one of the largest charter school chains in the nation, also blasted the proposed budget.
“President Trump says that he supports black and Latinx children, but his budget says otherwise,” he said in an email. “The elimination of programs such as those supporting teachers, English Language Learners and homeless students will be detrimental to students and families. Also, he says he wants to support families who want a say in where their children attend school, but by collapsing the highly successful Charter School Program into a block grant for the states, his budget would severely limit that choice.”
Jeanne Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform, which supports charter schools and school choice, questioned the administration’s logic of returning power over federal charter school money to states.
“The proposed Education Department budget reflects a misconception of the ‘power’ of local control and the actual manner in which the public charter school grant program operates,” she said in a statement. “There is no question that governors should have control over how education funds are spent in their respective states. But it is state education departments — often without accountability even under the most progressive of governors — that control those funds and tend to disseminate them to vested interests over student interests. Giving those institutions block grants for a concept that is designed to bypass layers of bureaucracy just increases their power.”
Ironically, the proposal puts charter critics in the position of agreeing with Trump and DeVos on at least one thing: elimination of the federal Charter Schools Program. One of them is Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit that advocates for traditional publicly funded education. The network last year released reports detailing hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on charters that were started with funding from the federal program but that never opened or quickly closed.
“There is one cut in the budget with which we strongly agree — the elimination of the Federal Charter Schools Program,” Burris said in an email. “Nina Rees, of the National Association of Public Charter Schools, correctly identified that program in her recent tweet as a program for ‘charter school entrepreneurs.’ … The U.S. Department of Education is not the Small Business Administration. It should not be funding a program for ‘charter school entrepreneurs.’ Let the states decide charter school policy and provide funds according to each state’s charter needs and laws.”
Today, 44 states and the District have charter schools, and some 6 percent of American schoolchildren attend them. Supporters say they provide choices for families who think traditional public schools are failing them, while critics say these schools are not accountable to the public and drain resources from the publicly funded districts that educate most students.
For years, DeVos has made clear her disdain for traditional public schools, at one point calling them “a dead end.” But she pushed to expand public charter schools in her home state of Michigan and nationally as an advocate for school choice before becoming education secretary in 2017. Her nomination by Trump was confirmed by the Senate only after Vice President Pence broke a tie, the first time in history that was necessary for Senate approval of a Cabinet secretary.
DeVos has become a punching bag for Democratic presidential candidates, most of whom have promised to replace her with an educator, or “fire” her as if she would actually want to work for them if they beat Trump in the November election. The president, however, has seen her as an asset to shore up his base, sending her out as a surrogate even as he frequently reveals his own aversion to publicly funded schools.
Trump trashed public schools again at last week’s State of the Union address, when he singled out Janiyah Davis, a Philadelphia fourth-grader, and her mother, who were sitting in the audience. He identified her as one of thousands of students “trapped in failing government schools.” What he meant was a traditional public school, but, as it turned out, she actually attends a sought-after charter school. Trump announced that a scholarship had suddenly become available so Janiyah could attend a private school of her choice, and later it was learned DeVos was funding it.
A White House fact sheet released before Trump delivered the speech Feb. 4 described Janiyah’s mother, Stephanie Davis, as “a hard-working single mother who is hoping for the expansion of school choice to be able to send Janiyah to a school that best serves her needs.” But Davis told the Philadelphia Inquirer she isn’t sure she will move her daughter from the charter school.
That episode highlighted what some Trump critics say is the administration’s real education priority: using public funds for private and religious education, not providing parents with the most school choice.
“They have $5 billion for tax-credit-voucher scholarships and are eliminating public school choice through things like the charter schools program and the magnet program,” Scott Sargrad told Chalkbeat. Sargrad is a former Barack Obama administration education official and now a vice president at the liberal Center for American Progress. “It shows what their priority is. And it’s not public school choice, it’s private school choice,” Sargrad said.
It is worth noting that some supporters of school choice did praise the proposed budget, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who campaigned as a strong Trump ally.