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Trump charter school funding shake-up worries school choice supporters

Budget proposal would allow states to choose program priorities and level of funding

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee in on Feb. 27.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos testifies before a House Appropriations Committee subcommittee in on Feb. 27. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Education Department’s fiscal 2021 budget request highlighted a dramatic new program: a block grant that would allow states to determine how they spend a major chunk of their federal education dollars.

But some advocates for charter schools worry it could hurt  them, an irony given Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ support for the tuition-free, privately run, but publicly funded schools that are popular in many cities. The schools, notably, aren’t as popular with teachers’ unions because they are not normally unionized, or with progressives, who see them as a threat to traditional public schools.

The Education Department proposal would eliminate 29 existing programs that support priorities like migrant education, 21st century learning, academic enrichment, English language acquisition and school safety, allowing states to choose which priorities they support, and with how much funding.

[DeVos, Democrats spar over block grants, charter schools]

DeVos says this would give states freedom to allocate money to suit their specific needs, including to charter schools.

But supporters of charter schools — often touted by conservative school-choice advocates — have concerns about the idea.

“While I tend to support block grants to states….I do have some concerns with consolidating some programs such as the charter school program,” Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee ranking Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma told DeVos at a Feb. 27 hearing. “There’s a risk here that some states are welcoming to charter schools, others frankly are not.”

DeVos pushed back. “I totally support charter schools and think we don’t need fewer of them, we need many more of them,” she said. “I view our consolidation and block grant proposal as one that is additive and positive for charters.”

[Democrats resist plan for new student aid agency]

The Charter Schools Program, which in fiscal 2020 received $440 million to support new charter schools and the expansion of existing ones, would be eliminated and replaced with the block grant program.

Tressa Pankovits, associate director of the Reinventing America’s Schools project at the Progressive Policy Institute, worries states might not maintain funding for charter schools. The institute is a moderate Democratic group.

A dip in funding, Pankovits says, would particularly affect schools that are not run by larger organizations and serve marginalized communities.

“A lot of the money does go in smaller grants to charter school operators who are starting up for the first time, or they’re running a successful school in a neighborhood in a large city or a rural community,” she says.

Pankovits worries that GOP-led states could shift charter school funding to vouchers to help low-income people pay for tuition at private or religious schools, while Democratic states could use it to hire more teachers for public school systems that have struggled to produce positive outcomes. 

“I do think there is a danger when you just hand the checkbook over, if there’s no accountability,” she says.

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