- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Trump administration has always supported giving students a choice in their education, but its recent budget proposal has baffled supporters of charter schools who fear that shifting the money allotted for starting them to block grants may doom new charters.

The unexpected bookkeeping marks a reversal in the way conservatives view block grants. In most cases, they view block grants as offering reductions in spending and increases in state autonomy. In this case, however, those groups fear a block grant will give the purse to legislatures stacked with charter school opponents.

“There’s a risk here,” Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole told Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a contentious House education subcommittee hearing Thursday. “Some states are welcoming to charters schools, others quite frankly are not. And so I worry a little bit about the public sector taking money that we want to seed these innovative things.”

Ms. DeVos insisted her own support for charter schools has not wavered and that “we need more of them.”

“I actually view our proposal as additive and positive for charters,” she said, noting she had spoke with “a number of governors” and that “in states where they embrace them there’s going to be expansion.”

Longstanding charter school champions offered a less sanguine take on the proposal, which many consider unlikely to survive the legislative process.

“This would probably mean death to new charter schools in the blue states, and in a whole lot of counties that don’t want any competition,” said Chester Finn, past president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy think tank, and a strong backer of more choice in education.

The money in question is what the Department of Education currently spends on the federal Charter Schools Program, which supporters consider the most important seed money in the charter school movement. Some $3.3 billion has gone to the program since its inception in 1994.

Charter schools are publicly funded but are run outside of government school systems.

The program distributes $440 million through a competitive process, with state officials or nonprofit foundations submitting funding requests. Charter school proponents say the program is responsible for nearly 60 percent of all charter school openings between 2006 and 2017. Now, the program is one of 29 the Trump administration would lump into a block grant to states.

Supporters worry that would hand the money to state legislatures where teachers unions, sworn opponents of the charter school movement, hold enormous sway over elected officials.

“You have legislatures controlled by the teachers unions, and there are districts with just a couple of exceptions that show no interest in charter schools,” Mr. Finn said.

As examples, the Fordham Institute pointed to Maryland and California. In the former, a Republican governor did have his administration submit a charter school proposal, and in the latter there are pockets where charter schools are thriving. The heavy Democratic majorities in both legislatures, however, would likely choke funding for charter school startups or operations.

“Or, it could be even worse than that,” said Christy Wolf, a vice president with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It could mean the money would simply go to some state agency that more likely than not will simply allocate it by formulas and not any for charter schools.”

Like the Democrats on the subcommittee, Ms. Wolfe said the proposed Trump budget has zero chance of passing in its current form — “dead in the water,” she called it — but it was an unusual signal from an administration that proclaims itself a champion of expanding options for public school students.

“No, none at all,” Ms. Wolfe said when asked if her group had been given any indication of the administration’s proposal or explanation of its thinking.

“I like to think of federal education money like the students’ backpacks following them wherever they go to learn,” Ms. DeVos told the subcommittee.

Some charter school advocates think the move came from budget cutters at the Office of Management and Budget and that it blindsided Ms. DeVos and her team. Mr. Cole hinted at this possibility Thursday, saying he knows that monetary decisions may have been made by teams at the White House and defended by its branches.

That’s what happened at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, where Democrats tore into Ms. DeVos for starving public education and painted federal support of charter schools as reckless. The proposed budget for fiscal 2021 includes a nearly $5 billion reduction in current spending on the 30-odd education programs that comprise the proposed block grant.

Some of Ms. DeVos‘ top assistants have accused charter school proponents of overreacting to the proposed block grant.

“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 the education website Chalkbeat this month. “In their desperate communications, they have exaggerated the importance of CSP — just like other lobbyists.”

Neither Mr. Blew’s remark nor Ms. DeVos testimony did much to reassure their allies in the charter school movement, however.

“We are saddened and puzzled by the Department of Education’s comments,” Nina Rees, the alliance’s president told The Washington Times. “The CSP is a proven winner for taxpayers and students alike. It deserves not just to be protected, but to grow.”

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