Credit: Brenda Iasevoli for EdSource
Sixth-grade students in a math class at Oscar Romero Charter School in Los Angeles.

Charter schools in California and elsewhere stand to be a major beneficiary of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the coming year, even though he wants to slash $9.2 billion from many other federal education programs.

Trump called for $1.4 billion in new funding for a “school choice” program that includes an increase of $250 million to subsidize tuition for private schools and $168 million for expanding charter schools. An additional $1 billion is for a program that would allow students to attend a public school of their choice, which could include charter schools. Trump has provided no details for any of these programs.

The extra $168 million for charter schools represents a 50 percent expansion of the Charter Schools Program from its current level of $333 million. The bulk of the funds are shared with states to support new charter schools. Two other grants within the program support the expansion of charter networks and facilities costs. The funds given to states can be spent on purchasing classroom equipment, such as laptops for students and desks, informing parents that schools are opening and training school staff.

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, welcomed the proposed increase. “The charter school movement is grateful for the president’s support,” she said in a statement. “We applaud his commitment to providing critically needed funding for the Charter Schools Program. This funding will allow more high-quality charter schools to open, expand and replicate – and will help finance facilities for charter schools – so that more students have access to the great education they deserve.”

Some charter advocates in California, however, expressed concerns about Trump’s proposal to cut billions of dollars from many other federal education programs. Like traditional public schools, charter schools also stand to lose funds if Congress were to approve those cutbacks.

In 2016-17, California’s 1,253 charter schools enrolled 603,630 students.  “While we need time to dig deeper into the budget details and how exactly it will impact charter students, we are concerned that the federal government appears to be reducing its overall investment in K-12 education,” said Jason Mandell, a California Charter Schools Association spokesman. “This is of grave concern to us.”

States have to apply to receive a share of the federal funds allocated for the Charter Schools Program. The funds can be used for various purposes, including acquiring facilities to house a charter school and expanding existing charter networks.

The California Charter School Association is making a big push to expand enrollments from the current level of 600,000 to 1 million students by 2022.  Federal start-up funds will presumably help get the new schools needed to reach that number off the ground.

Last year, out of the $333 million national grant program, California received $49.9 million over a three-year period. The state in turn gives qualifying new charters up to $575,000 through the program. In addition, the Charter Schools Program distributed $68 million directly to charter networks around the nation, including three with schools in California: Amethod Public Schools, Equitas Academy Charter School Inc. and KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program).

Ron Rice Jr., senior director of government relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the funds are crucial to help get charters off the ground. The money, he said, “makes all the difference … it is the mother’s milk of new charter schools.”

The ability to tap federal funds does appear to make a difference in the viability of new charters. California noted in its 2016 application for federal funds that between 2010 and 2015, just 4 percent of charters that received money through the Charter Schools Program were shut down, compared with 14 percent of charters that didn’t receive the federal dollars.

“It was very helpful in terms of getting our facilities set up,” said Corrie Sands, academic director of Aspen Public, a Fresno charter school that opened in August 2016 with $575,000 in start-up funds through the Charter Schools Program. “We moved into and leased a facility with classroom space, but the floors needed to be redone, the painting needed to be done,” That included painting over murals with religious themes in a building that was formerly a church.   The school also had to purchase other materials, including desks for teachers and Chromebooks for students.

In 2010, California received a roughly $290 million five-year federal charter grant, which from 2010 to 2016 helped support 323 charter schools, a state report shows (see page 30 of the report).  California also administers a separate stream of grant funds money that assists qualifying charter schools in covering the costs of leases on its facilities. In 2016-17, the state received $112 million to administer through the Charter School Facility Grant Program.

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