An unexpected thing happened when President Trump recently proposed cutting the Education Department budget by some 14 percent while spending a mountain of new money on charter schools and other school-choice options: Some prominent operators of charter schools announced that they weren’t happy with the plan.

Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have said their top priority in education is expanding school choice, and Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for a $168 million increase for charter schools, a 50 percent funding increase. It is also possible that the administration will push for the first-ever federal tax credit program that would steer public money into private schools. Such programs exist now in a number of states, and DeVos has repeatedly called a Florida tax-credit program a model for the nation.

Under the draft budget, the 14 percent proposed reductions at the Education Department would cut or eliminate grants for, among other things, teacher training, after-school programs, and aid to low-income and minority college students. Trump would spend $1.4 billion on school-choice initiatives, including charters.

Leaders of more than 20 charter school networks signed on to a recent op-ed in USA Today that says they don’t want the money if it comes at the expense of important programs that help students in traditional public schools. They wrote:

We see charters as an important part of a much broader effort to revitalize public education in America. Already, in cities such as New York, Denver, St. Louis and Houston, we see ourselves as partners, not competitors, with traditional school districts. These partnerships, we hope, will only grow in the future.
But to make that broader vision work, we need federal support for all schools, for all kids, not just kids in “choice” schools.

The authors of the piece are Dacia Toll, co-chief executive officer of Achievement First, a network of charter schools in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island; Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation, a network of charter schools in numerous states, including Maryland, New York, Texas, California, North Carolina, Illinois, Colorado and Ohio, as well as in the District; and Brett Peiser, chief executive of Uncommon Schools, a charter network in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

These other charter networks were mentioned in the piece as being on board with the sentiment: Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Aspire Public Schools, Breakthrough Schools, Brooke Charter Schools, Blackstone Valley Prep, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, D.C. Prep, DSST, Green Dot Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, RePublic Schools, Rocketship Education, STRIVE Prep, Summit Public Schools, Uplift Education and YES Prep Public Schools.

And Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, released a separate statement saying:

We support and appreciate an increase in federal funding for charter schools. All families deserve the opportunity to choose a school that best meets the needs of their children. However, we are deeply concerned about proposed cuts to other important education programs, as charter schools are part of — not a substitute for — a strong public education system. Charter schools cannot succeed without strong teachers and a seamless, affordable path to college for their graduates. Unfortunately, this proposed budget harms programs that are important for students, teachers, and public education. We look forward to working with Congress to finds ways to support both charter schools and all of public education.

But some charter school advocates are delighted about Trump’s proposed budget, highlighting an important split in the school choice community. Nina Rees, president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in a statement:

President Trump demonstrated that he is a strong supporter of charter public schools. The charter school movement is grateful for the president’s support, and we applaud his commitment to providing critically needed funding for the Charter Schools Program (CSP). This funding will allow more high-quality charter schools to open, expand, and replicate — and will help finance facilities for charter schools — so that more students have access to the great education they deserve.

The disagreement among charter operators underscores the variety of opinions they have about just how far policymakers should take school choice. Some charter operators oppose using public money for private and religious school tuition — which is what vouchers and tax-credit programs do. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated; some of them get substantial financial help from philanthropists and foundations.

Public school advocates who oppose or want to limit charter schools say that too many charters use public money without being held accountable to the public. They are furious about Trump’s education budget proposal. Jeff Bryant, an associate fellow at Campaign for America’s Future and editor of the Education Opportunity Network, notes in this Common Dreams piece:

The way the Trump administration is spinning this combination of funding cuts and increases — and the way nearly every news outlet is reporting them — is that there is some sort of strategically important balance between funding programs for poor kids versus “school choice” schemes, as if the two are equivalents and just different means to the same ends. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . . The message being spun out of Trump’s education budget is that it takes money away from those awful “adult interests” — like, you know, teachers to actually teach the students and buildings so students have somewhere to go after school to play sports, get tutored, or engage in music and art projects — to steer money to “the kids” who will get a meager sum of money to search for learning opportunities in an education system that is increasingly bereft of teachers and buildings.
Even competent education reporters are falling for this spin, writing that education policy is experiencing a “sea change in focus from fixing the failing schools to helping the students in the failing schools.”
However, there’s evidence that federally funded efforts like after-school programs and class size reduction tend to lead to better academic results for low-income children, while the case for using school choice programs to address the education needs of poor kids is pretty weak.