President Trump, in yesterday’s 2021 budget address, called for cutting the U.S. Department of Education budget by 8 percent. That is obviously terrible, but it is, at least, less than the 12 percent he wanted to axe in 2019 or the 10 percent reduction he called for in 2020.
Slashing eight percent of the federal education budget equals a $6.1 billion cut. Trump proposes to convert the lion’s share of that to a federal tax credit of up to $5 billion a year for donations to “scholarship programs.” The “Education Freedom Scholarship” (EFS) would gift individuals and domestic businesses with a federal tax credit for money they give to state-approved scholarship-granting organizations that offer scholarships to private schools, including religious schools. Most of these private schools are not accountable to state governments for their performance, despite accepting the public money.
But Trump’s real 2021 fiscal malpractice is his proposal to collapse all current grant programs into lump sum block grants that states can spend as they see fit. This includes the federal Charter School Program (CSP), which helps fund new chartered public schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operated by private organizations, most of them non-profits. They do not charge tuition, and they must be authorized and renewed by a state approved body—usually a government agency, state board of education, local school board, or public university. Almost all are open enrollment, meaning they cannot choose their students and must hold lotteries when demand exceeds space.
Because they operate free of school district bureaucracy, charters can innovate and design classrooms that meet their students’ needs. Numerous studies have proven that they generate positive results for their students, especially low income, minority children. Most charter teachers choose not to unionize, so the teachers unions detest them, and their attacks have politicized the issue.
Which brings up an important point about Trump’s timing. This year, 11 states will elect their governor, while 44 states will hold elections for one or both of their legislative houses. Block-granting the federal CSP would pour gasoline on the political fire that has raged over charter schools in the states. By their own reporting, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) spent a combined $93.3 million on politics in 2017− and that was an off year. In 2020 it is staggering to imagine what they will spend—and the pressure all that money will put on politicians running for office. There couldn’t be a worse moment to dissolve the CSP and turn its resources over to state elected officials.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says CSP is especially important to small or single-site schools, which have little access to resources. Many of those are run by African-American or Hispanic educators seeking to create alternatives for students trapped in failing inner-city schools that are constrained by bureaucratic rules and inflexible union contracts. If Trump’s budget were to pass as presented, these educators would be cut off at the knees, and the five million students who are on charter school waiting lists would suffer. They would have no choice but to remain trapped in failing schools, or to hope for a voucher and that a private school admitted them. Congress must push back hard against Trump’s disastrous vision for the future of education.