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Gentles: Federal Charter Schools Program Is a Bipartisan, Vital Investment in Educational Opportunity. Trump’s Block-Grant Plan Shouldn’t Change That

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For a quarter-century, the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) has channeled essential startup funding to nonprofits launching charter schools. The Trump administration’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget proposes rolling the program into a new, large education block grant to states, an idea that launches an interesting discussion about the flow of federal funding but likely will receive little support from Congress. In a new case study, I describe the history and impact of this valuable and important federal program, which should be continued and strengthened.

The original CSP law created a federal program to provide small, competitive grants to charter school developers, including “teachers, administrators and other school staff, parents or other members of the local community in which a charter school project will be carried out.” The program’s creators hoped that funding new charter schools would expand freedom for communities to innovate, test a variety of educational approaches and provide educational opportunities to students poorly served by their neighborhood school.

Soon after the first state charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991, advocates proposed creating a federal startup funding source for these new, innovative, autonomous public schools. The idea received bipartisan backing, including substantial support from Democrats in Congress and the White House. Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota developed a proposal to provide competitive federal grant funding and build awareness of the charter idea among other states’ legislators and governors. Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut co-sponsored the bill and Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma introduced the bipartisan House companion bill. The Democratic Leadership Council and its affiliated think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, worked to expand support for the proposal among members of Congress and governors.

Then-President Bill Clinton included charter funding in his administration’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization proposals, and charter proponent Sen. Ted Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, oversaw the reauthorization conference committee. The federal Public Charter Schools Program was signed into law in 1994 as part of the comprehensive Improving America’s Schools Act in the reauthorization and received a $6 million appropriation for fiscal year 1995.

For years, CSP expanded due to support from congressional advocates, including Rep. Frank Riggs of California and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, both Republicans, and Bush administration secretaries of education Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings. The Obama administration, under Secretaries Arne Duncan and John King, initiated a significant funding spike for the program and, due to bipartisan support, it has grown considerably. In FY 2020, CSP received an annual appropriation of $440 million for the second consecutive year.

The Trump administration’s FY 2021 budget proposes folding CSP, along with close to 30 other federal education programs, into a new $19.4 billion Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged block grant to states. The block-grant concept has alarmed charter advocates who are striving to maintain bipartisan support for the program. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defended the proposal during congressional budget testimony last week while affirming, “I totally support charter schools and think we need not fewer of them, but more of them.” In the same hearing, Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut stated that “with regard to charter schools, there is a place for them. They have a role in education.” The block-grant debate will soon fade away, but support for starting new charter schools likely will continue.

The federal charter grant program effectively uses small amounts of federal power and funding to encourage a variety of innovative approaches to public education. Many schools launched with CSP funds serve disadvantaged students. Rather than continuing to focus on the administration’s budget, policymakers should explore opportunities to further strengthen the program. The government’s lengthy CSP application, for example, could be streamlined to avoid discouraging smaller charter developers and community organizations from applying. The grant competition process could be reviewed and improved. In addition, the program could focus on funding more single-site and novice charter applications. Reversing the recent trend to send large CSP replication grants to charter management organizations that already started and operated one or more successful schools could provide more grant funds for organizations planning their first charter school.

The CSP was designed to encourage nonprofits to open a diverse array of charters that fit the needs of their local communities. Strengthening the program and adjusting the flow of federal charter school funds could ensure that the program’s original goals are fulfilled and preserve an important federal investment in educational opportunity.

Virginia (Ginny) Gentles is a former state and federal education policy leader and founder of School Choice Solutions, LLC.

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