The Trump administration wants to cut federal education spending — including money for charter schools

The Trump administration proposed a major reduction in federal education spending Monday that would eliminate nearly 30 standalone programs, including ones that support homeless students, rural students, English learners, and magnet schools.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the proposal would effectively axe a long-standing federal program that has catalyzed charter school growth across the country.

The department packaged this move as part of a bigger effort to give states more decision-making power.

States “should be able to spend their federal taxpayer dollars to support implementing their programs in their plans, not the pet projects of Washington’s politicians or bureaucrats,”  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said during a presentation Monday afternoon. “To that end, we essentially propose putting an end to education earmarks.”

Still, the administration re-upped its proposal to create a $5 billion tax credit program to fund stipends for private school tuition and other education expenses.

The budget proposal, which would cut total federal education spending by about 8 percent, is considered a long shot by many Capitol Hill observers. But it signals that the Trump administration is still intent on implementing a more conservative vision for the education department — and that it is willing to sacrifice money earmarked for charter schools in the process.

“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,” said Scott Sargrad, a former Obama administration education official and now a vice president at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “It shows what their priority is. And it’s not public school choice, it’s private school choice.”

The budget plan would consolidate — and cut

The Trump administration wants to create a new stream of funding for disadvantaged students that would consolidate current spending on Title I — which gives money to schools serving low-income students — and 28 other programs.

This school year, the department spent $16.3 billion on Title I grants to states and districts and $7.8 billion on the other programs. Under the proposed budget, it would all become a $19.4 billion pot that would be distributed through the Title I formulas — a $4.7 billion cut, if the budget were enacted.

The individual programs on the chopping block include:

  • 21st Century Learning Centers, which supports after-school programs in places like Detroit and New York City ($1.25 billion)
  • Arts in Education ($30 million)
  • English Language Acquisition ($787 million)
  • Homeless Education ($102 million)
  • Neglected and Delinquent, which offers grants to states to educate incarcerated students ($48 million)
  • Magnet Schools, which offers grants some districts use for desegregation ($107 million)
  • Migrant Education ($375 million)
  • Rural Education ($186 million)
  • Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants, which is also known as Title II, Part A, which districts can use for teacher training and to reduce class sizes ($2.1 billion)

This move, the budget documents say, would reduce the federal government’s role in education and pave the way for less spending on department staff.

But the proposed elimination of these streams of funding raised alarms among civil rights advocates, who said this would enable states to spend less money on vulnerable groups like students who are English learners, homeless students, students involved in the juvenile justice system, or migrant students.

“History has shown us that … unless the federal government says you must serve migrant children, and here are funds to help you do that, migrant children are lost and forgotten,” said Liz King, the education equity program director at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The purpose of the dedicated pots of money … is to make sure that the most powerless people in our country are not lost.”

Advocates for other programs expressed concern, too. During a question and answer session with education department officials, a member of the National Association for Gifted Children asked why the administration had proposed eliminating a $13 million program that supports gifted education.

“We’re not suggesting we eliminate any programs, we’re talking about consolidating grants and allowing states to make decisions on how to invest in gifted students and every other kind of student,” said James Blew, an assistant education secretary. “I trust that you will go out to the states and tell them that they should be investing in gifted students.”

It’s not at all clear that Congress will go along, though. Lawmakers have previously ignored the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce education spending. Politico called Monday’s proposal a “fiscally conservative dream document lawmakers will largely disregard.”

Already under siege from Democrats, federal charter school program also under pressure from Trump administration

Another program that would see its funding zeroed out is the federal Charter Schools Program — a startling setback for charter advocates who seemed to have an ally in the White House.

Money distributed through the program — nearly $4 billion in total since 1995 — has helped new charter schools get off the ground and helped existing charter networks grow. The KIPP and IDEA charter networks netted major federal expansion grants last year of $86 million and $116 million, respectively.

But the program has come under increased criticism in recent months, particularly for allocating money to some charter schools that later closed or never opened.

State leaders in Michigan considered rejecting federal dollars before capitulating last year. New Hampshire lawmakers simply rejected a large federal grant meant to double the number of charter schools in the state. And the program has become a target of several leading Democratic presidential hopefuls, with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both saying they would stop funding the program.

DeVos has long championed school choice, including charter schools. In previous budget proposals, the Trump administration has sought to increase federal charter spending.

The latest budget quickly drew sharp criticism from charter advocates.

“They’re eliminating the only program that they can claim as something they supported and instead [are] putting all of their eggs in this education freedom scholarship … that is unlikely to become law any time soon,” said Nina Rees, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Even if, as expected, the proposal is not enacted in its entirety, it could further weaken the hand of charter school advocates.

“It does send a signal that the administration doesn’t think any of these other programs are important or worth fighting for,” said Sargrad of the Center for American Progress. “It will be interesting to see how the Senate and the House react to that — and whether they continue to fight for these programs.”

Meanwhile, Trump officials have ramped up their efforts to win support for its tax credit scholarship legislation.

Trump mentioned the proposed program in his State of the Union speech last week, and invited a fourth-grade student from Philadelphia as an example of the kind of student such a program would help — even though the student already attends a popular charter school in her city.