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Where Sanders, Trump, and Warren Have Common Ground on Charter Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 11, 2020 5 min read
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If you put Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in a room with President Donald Trump, the two politicians might not agree on very much. But through his proposed education budget, the president has actually managed to occupy what might be described as a piece of common ground with the two Democratic candidates for president: what position to take on the federal Charter School Program grants.

This program, which currently gets $440 million in U.S. Department of Education funding, is designed to help successful charter school models expand. In general, the program has received bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, and its pot of money has grown somewhat during the Trump administration. But Democrats at the national level have grown increasingly critical of charter schools, even if the same isn’t true for some of their supporters, and that trend is reflected in the plans for charter schools from Sanders and Warren.

Both senators say they want to halt federal support for the growth of charter schools. That’s a reference to the Charter School Program grants. It doesn’t mean they want to stop federal funding for charters altogether; charters benefit from Title I, special education, and other federal grants just like traditional public schools. But it’s clearly a signal that Sanders and Warren don’t want to see their influence expand in the national K-12 system. In his education plan, for example, Sanders says he supports the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on public funding for charter school expansion, which leaves open the possibility that it could resume after a “national audit.”

So what about Trump? In documents detailing his budget request, he wants to end the $440 million in dedicated funding for charter growth under the Charter School Program by making it just one of the 29 programs he’d fold into a new, catch-all block grant.

That’s not to say Trump’s in the same camp as Sanders and Warrren policywise: The administration envisions that states would want to use the proposed block grant to support charters. In fact, the Education Department specifically highlights charters as a possible an allowable use for the block grant in its budget documents.

Clearly, Sanders and Warren are coming at this issue from a different philosophical perspective than the Trump administration—more on the administration’s view in a moment. And the two senators have criticisms of (and other plans to rein in) charters that Trump and his administration clearly do not share.

But all three want to halt the federal program that provides dedicated financial support for charter expansion.

‘Comparison is Ludicrous’

In a statement, Education Department spokeswoman Angela Morabito rejected out of hand any idea that the Trump administration is backing down from its support for charter schools.

She stressed that the Trump administration in the past had proposed historically high funding levels for Charter School Program grants, and that Congress has subsequently provided record funding for them. Morabito also said that the latest budget proposal states “would have greater flexibility to fund the programs that are working well for students, including public charter schools” and that “charters are serving students well and will continue to grow and thrive under this proposal.”

And she dismissed the idea that Trump’s budget proposal for the charter school grants was comparable to what Sanders and Warren want for the program.

“To make the comparison is ludicrous and ignores the facts,” Morabito said. “This Administration is the most choice friendly, pro-education freedom Administration in history, and we believe states, the laboratories of democracy, are best suited to spend education dollars in the ways that best serve their students.”

Morabito also pointed to praise for the budget pitch overall from education officials like New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who said the block grant “would give us much-needed flexibility to align resources with the students and programs that need them the most,” and Florida State Board of Education Chairman Andy Tuck, who lauded the administration for making a “strong commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely by consolidating duplicative federal programs that are better implemented at the state and local level.”

However, that support does not alter the fact that groups specifically focused on supporting charter schools expressed concerns about the administration’s plans for the CSP. For example, Rich Buery Jr., the chief of policy at the KIPP Foundation that trains leaders for the Knowledge is Power Program network of charter schools, said in a statement responding to Trump’s budget request that although the president said he wanted more choice for families, “by collapsing the highly-successful Charter School Program into a block grant for the states his budget would severely limit that choice.”

It’s worth noting the contrast between this handling of charter school funding and the administration’s Education Freedom Scholarships proposal, which would provide $5 billion annually for private school vouchers and other forms of K-12 choice through federal tax credits. And news that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pledged to financially support a Philadelphia student’s reported switch from a charter school to a private school, after Trump described this student and others as trapped in “failing government schools” in his State of the Union address last week, underscored that not all forms of school choice are the same.

“They’re definitely accentuating the divide and siding more with the private school choice movement—making it clear that their vision of choice is one about access to private schools rather than a public school choice,” Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told us Monday, referring to the Trump administration.

Photo: Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate in 2019 in Detroit. (AP/Paul Sancya)

Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.