After seeking to cut charter program, education department calls backers ‘desperate’

When President Trump’s budget plan was released earlier this week, one cut stood out: a program that funnels federal dollars to charter schools.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has long been a charter-school advocate, with charters fitting under the umbrella of her favored policy, school choice. But that was apparently outweighed by an interest in a longtime conservative goal: a smaller education department that hands more control over to states.

The plan has frustrated charter advocates. On Thursday, though, the education department made clear that it isn’t backing down.

“The federal lobbyists for charter schools sound a lot like the lobbyists for all of the other competitive grant programs,” Assistant Secretary Jim Blew told Chalkbeat in a statement. “In their desperate communications, they have exaggerated the importance of CSP — just like other lobbyists,” he added, referring to the Charter Schools Program.

It’s not clear that the program is in real jeopardy, since Congress has previously disregarded the Trump administration’s proposed budgets. But the budget proposal and combative rhetoric suggest that charter advocates do not have as staunch an ally in the administration as they previously believed.

“We are saddened and puzzled by the Department of Education’s comments,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which has received federal charter dollars. “We advocate for the federal Charter Schools Program because we believe it is a lifeline for students.”

In his comments Thursday, Blew maintained that “public charter schools are an important educational option for families across the country, and the Secretary is unwavering in her support for them.” But it was time for state leaders to step up and support charters, he said.

“We have made clear that one of the most successful statewide strategies for school improvement would be to develop and grow their public charter school sectors, but the Department would not force them to do so,” he said. “We believe that sort of mandate would be federal overreach.”

Concerns about the federal role in education have not stopped the administration from also pushing a $5 billion program, funded through tax credits, to subsidize scholarships to private schools and other education programs.

The back and forth began Monday when the Trump administration budget proposed eliminating 29 education programs, including the Charter Schools Program. It would replace them with a single grant provided to states, which would have more flexibility in how they could use the money. The amount in this grant would be substantially less than the total of all the programs it was meant to replace.

Charter advocates and leaders were not happy.

President Trump “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,” said Rich Buery, chief of policy and public affairs at KIPP, the country’s largest nonprofit charter network. KIPP recently netted an $86 million grant through the program.

For some left-of-center charter supporters, like Democrats for Education Reform, the department’s move amounted to vindication of what they had long argued — that their vision of school choice is fundamentally different than DeVos’. Charter critics, on the other hand, found themselves with a surprising ally in their fight to eliminate a program they argue is wasteful and supersedes local control.

The Department of Education moved quickly to insist that the proposal is not anti-charter. Angela Morabito, the department’s press secretary, claimed Wednesday that Chalkbeat’s headline describing cuts to charter school funding was inaccurate.

“This budget proposal doesn’t eliminate anything,” she said. “The Administration views our proposal as very pro-charter and pro-reform.”

The budget proposal would bring funding for the Charter Schools Program from $440 million to zero, and the replacement grant would have no money earmarked for charters, though the grant could be used to support them, if states chose. Even accepting the administration’s logic that the program was simply being consolidated, the proposal still calls for substantial cuts.

On Thursday, though, the administration took a different tack, downplaying the role of the federal charter funds and criticizing those who raised alarms.

Blew, the assistant secretary who previously led education giving at the pro-charter Walton Family Foundation, said that the Charter Schools Program “touches only a small fraction of charter schools each year” and that “the federal funds that public charter schools receive through IDEA and Title I dwarf” the charter-specific program. (Walton is a funder of Chalkbeat.) Fewer than 3,000 of the country’s 7,000-plus charter schools had received a federal grant, he said.

A recent presentation from the Department showed the figure was slightly higher: as of 2016, more than 3,100 existing charter had received such a grant, with the program helping to fund close to 45% of all operating charters. (Morabito, the spokesperson, acknowledged the error when asked about it by Chalkbeat.)

For charters that opened between 2006 and 2016, the share was even higher — 60% had received a federal grant.

It’s impossible to say how many of those schools would have opened even without the federal support. Blew suggested that many would have, saying that the program is not the “lifeblood” of the sector in the way that some are claiming.

Rees thinks otherwise.

“The vast majority of the highest performing charter school networks have been funded by the CSP since 2010,” she said. “The folding of the CSP into a larger block grant would put millions of public school students at risk, specifically the Black and Brown students who stand to benefit from the program the most.”

Meanwhile, charter advocates find themselves facing political challenges in states and cities across the country. California strengthened school boards’ ability to reject new charter applications. Illinois abolished a state commission that authorized charters. New York City charter schools have reached their cap. Michigan cut charters out from a funding increase (before eventually adding them in). New Hampshire rejected a federal charter schools grant.

That’s likely part of why charter advocates are so skeptical of the administration’s push to devolve authority to states.

Regardless, Blew says the case for state and local control of those funds is sound.

“We believe it is time for States to embrace the success of public charter schools and assume responsibility for growing their own charter school sectors,” he said.