Last week, the Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, a body now dominated by Democrats, sent forward to the floor of the House an education appropriations proposal to cut—by 10 percent—Congressional funding for the federal Charter Schools Program. This year the program is funded at $440 million. The Democratic appropriations committee has proposed the allocation of $400 million for next year.
By contrast, the President’s budget—proposed in mid-March—reflects the priorities of Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education, who seeks an additional $60 million next year for a total Charter Schools Program allocation of $500 million in FY 2020.
Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa describes the House Appropriations Committee’s proposed 2020 education budget: “A bill to increase the U.S. Department of Education’s budget by more than $4 billion is headed to the floor of the House of Representatives… (T)he House appropriations committee approved legislation that would provide significant increases for grants aimed at disadvantaged students, after-school programming, and social-emotional learning…. While Democrats want more money for several programs, they want $40 million less for federal charter school grants, a cut of nearly 10 percent to $400 million. The move symbolizes how opposition to charter schools has gained more traction in the Democratic Party recently….”
Ujifusa adds: ” It’s the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the appropriations process in the chamber, but their bill is very, very far from becoming the law of the land… The legislation hasn’t been approved by the full House yet. More importantly, the Senate, which is controlled by Republicans, will likely introduce a bill that’s different in several key respects.”
But the move by the Appropriations Committee to cut charter school funding indicates an important political shift. The proposed reduction is evidence that Democrats, who have been part of a bipartisan wave of support for neoliberal public-private partnership via charter schools are shifting their attention back to traditional public schools, which, after all, serve 50 million students. Charters serve only 6 percent.
The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss explains that a series of scathing biennial reports from the U.S. Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General—reports which have condemned the appalling absence of oversight of this program—have contributed to the Charter Schools Program’s collapsing reputation. In addition to cutting the budget for the Charter Schools Program by $40 million, members of the House Appropriations Committee included a warning that the Department must improve management of the program. Strauss publishes the Appropriations Committee’s warning: “The Committee is deeply concerned that the Department does not intend to be a responsible steward of taxpayer dollars when it comes to CSP (Charter Schools Program) funding, as it has rejected the multiple Ed-OIG (Office of Inspector General) audit recommendations.”
A scathing recent report from the Network for Public Education has also contributed to growing skepticism about the Charter Schools Program. In the report, Asleep at the Wheel, the Network for Public Education documents the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars out of the total $4 billion that has been spent on the Charter Schools Program. A third of the schools whose startup or expansion was seeded by the Charter Schools Program never opened or, once open, soon shut down due to fiscal improprieties, financial collapse, or academic failure. (This blog has covered the Network for Public Education’s Asleep at the Wheel report here.)
Strauss describes a growing backlash against charter schools among Democrats: “Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies with varying levels of oversight. Supporters say they are every bit as public as traditional districts, while critics say these schools are part of an effort to privatize public education. The Obama administration was instrumental in driving the growth of charters, even including it as a goal for states in its $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative. But recently the charter movement has arrived at what appears to be an inflection point. Many public school systems are complaining about losing significant funding to charters. Teacher strikes that began in 2018 and have continued this year throughout the country—including in Republican-led states—have helped change the debate about public education funding.”
Education Week’s Ujifusa explores growing disenchantment with charter schools among Democratic politicians: “President Barack Obama supported charter schools, and some Democrats—like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a 2020 presidential candidate—still do. But elsewhere, antipathy toward charters among Democrats and progressives has grown as a political force.” Ujifusa quotes Charles Barone regretting the House Appropriations’ action to cut the Charter Schools Program budget. Barone is the chief policy officer for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), a pro-charter PAC, founded more than a decade ago by New York hedge fund managers.
In a recent blog post, Diane Ravitch explains that Democrats for Education Reform’s claim—that it represents Democrats—seems to be fading: “The Democratic state parties in California and Colorado have denounced DFER as a corporate front that should drop the word ‘Democrat’ from its title.”