Charter Schools in Surprise Political Fight as Trump and Democrats Turn Away

By Erica L. Green

WASHINGTON — Public charter schools — caught between growing Democratic disenchantment and a Trump administration shift toward private schools — are preparing for political battle, as the long-protected education sector finds itself on the verge of abandonment.

Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, proposed major changes this month to a federal education fund that for decades has driven growth of charter schools, which typically are run independently but funded publicly and available, often through a lottery, to any child in a school district. In President Trump’s budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins in October, the stand-alone charter schools fund would be dissolved into a broad educational block grant to the states, leaving charters to fight for money with competing educational priorities.

Presidential budgets usually hold little weight, especially when the House is held by the opposition party. But for charter schools, the Trump administration’s shift in emphasis toward private school support comes at a precarious time — Democratic lawmakers have targeted the same federal charter fund.

Last year, the Democratic-led House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the education budget sought to cut the federal charter school fund by $40 million, though funding ultimately remained flat from the year before. This year, charters are bracing for the House to try to zero it out altogether.

Ms. DeVos is scheduled on Thursday to defend the department’s budget requests, which would take an overall 8 percent cut, before the subcommittee. Already, the charter school alliance has begun pleading with its members to lobby lawmakers.

“We’re used to being favored by both sides, and not used to the controversy at the national level,” said Nina Rees, the president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. She added, “This is a time that we can show our stripes.”

The Trump administration’s shift was a stark departure from its three previous budgets, which would have increased spending on charter grants, currently funded at $440 million. The new proposal would effectively eliminate the 26-year-old program.

Instead, the fund, along with more than two dozen other programs deemed duplicative and ineffective, would be collapsed into a $19.4 billion block grant — about $4 billion less than current funding — that would be doled out to state school systems that would decide which programs to fund.

Education Department officials said the proposal would reduce bureaucracy, paperwork and federal influence in district-level programming decisions and was not a cut. In a statement, the department called itself “pro-charter, pro-taxpayer and pro-education freedom.”

Charter advocates were not comforted. Richard Buery Jr., the chief of policy and public affairs for KIPP public charter Schools, said the charter grant cut was “unnecessary antagonism,” but more concerning was the 28 other programs for low-income public school students being cut.

“This administration has demonstrated year after year true disdain for black and Latino communities with rhetoric, and then reinforces that disdain with funding proposals that regularly demonstrate a lack of support for those communities,” Mr. Buery said.

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