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‘I think that’s blood money’: Arne Duncan pushed charters to reject funds from Trump admin if budget cuts approved

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner

For left-of-center education reformers, the proposed Trump budget amounted to a devil’s bargain.

They could support the budget plan, which would give hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools. But they would have to do so knowing it slashed education spending across the board, including money meant for poor students.

Around 25 leaders talked over the dilemma at a previously unreported meeting on March 16 — coincidentally, the same day the initial budget plan was released. There, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a provocative suggestion: charter leaders should refuse to accept federal money designated for charter schools if Trump’s cuts to education went through.

Duncan called those funds “blood money,” according to two attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was intended to be private.

The meeting, originally called to discuss the broader question of how progressive education reform should survive in the age of Trump and the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, points to the widening fault lines within that movement.

The gathering included another former education secretary, John King, as well as leaders of groups such as Teach for America and Democrats for Education Reform and from the Achievement First and Uncommon charter networks.

Duncan declined to speak about the meeting, but he reiterated his view to Chalkbeat in an interview.

“If [DeVos] is cutting money for traditional public schools and putting money into charters … I’ve told them not to take the money,” said Duncan. “I think that’s blood money.”

“We all [have] got to be thinking about not just the kids we serve directly, but all kids,” he said.

The deep cuts proposed by the administration are not seen as likely to make it through Congress; a House budget bill released last month would reduce education spending by $2.4 billion, not by the Trump plan’s $9.2 billion. Duncan emphasized that the cuts — and thus a potential response from charter leaders — are still hypothetical.

Liz Hill, the Department of Education press secretary, sharply criticized Duncan’s suggestion to charter leaders.

“Make no mistake: following this approach would hurt students. It’s an insult to the millions of students and parents benefiting from charter schools, and the millions more on waiting lists trying to get into a school that better meets their needs,” she said in a statement. “It’s especially sad to see such a misguided effort advanced by a former Secretary of Education.”

‘It’s not just about accountability or school choice’

The left-of-center charter school advocates who held sway in the Obama administration have a complicated relationship with DeVos, who backs charter schools but also private-school vouchers and, as a member of the Trump administration, is viewed skeptically by many.

Some, including Success Academy Eva Moskowitz, a former Democratic New York City council member who was briefly considered for education secretary, have praised DeVos. (Moskowitz was not at the March meeting.) Other Democrats, such as Duncan, King and Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats For Education Reform, have been far more critical.

The overarching question at the March discussion, organized in part by Jeffries, was how education reformers should respond to the Trump and DeVos administration, including on issues beyond education. (Jeffries declined to comment, saying the meeting was private.)

“There was a broad consensus that we need to expand our view of what it is to be about kids,” said one person present. “It’s not just about accountability or school choice or things like that — it’s also about protecting the civil rights of our children and protecting our immigrant kids.”

This perspective was strongly articulated by John King. (A spokesperson for the Education Trust, where King is now president, declined to comment.)

“There was a sincere tension between people feeling like they’d be abandoning kids if they just joined the general political fight … and a sincere belief that this Trump administration is going to destroy the country and part of that, destroy the lives of many kids,” said the attendee.

There was some disagreement on the issue of school vouchers — DeVos’s signature idea — though few participants were strongly in favor of the policy.

Jonah Edelman, who runs the advocacy group Stand for Children and attended the meeting, would later pen an essay with American Federation for Teachers president Randi Weingarten calling vouchers “bad for kids, public education and our democracy.” (Edelman did not respond to a request for comment.)

‘This funding is vital’

Two attendees said Duncan’s idea of declining federal charter funds received mixed reactions, though most in the room were not charter leaders — that is, those who would have to make the difficult decision not to accept federal money.

“There are some people who wanted to take this more punchy, assertive approach and there were some people … who were less inclined to do that,” one said.

Duncan, for his part, said he had “had that conversation with some charter network leaders” — though he declined to get into specifics — and said the idea was not dismissed out of hand.

“Some people it really made them stop and think, and others I could tell were already thinking along those lines,” he said. “This is my best thinking; they are ultimately going to make their own decisions.”

None of the three high-profile charter networks contacted by Chalkbeat endorsed Duncan’s suggestion. Achievement First, KIPP, and Uncommon have all have previously received millions of dollars from the federal Charter School Program, which supports the expansion of existing charter operators.

Steve Mancini, a spokesperson for KIPP, said CEO Richard Barth was present for part of the March meeting but left before Duncan arrived.

Both Mancini and Barbara Martinez, the chief external officer of Uncommon Schools, emphasized their organizations’ strong opposition to the Trump budget, but declined to take a position on potentially refusing charter school funds.

In a statement, Dacia Toll, who is the president of Achievement First and was at the March meeting, sounded a skeptical note on declining federal dollars, while reiterating her “firm opposition to a federal budget that hurts our students, families, and communities.”

“We, like virtually every school district in this country, will accept federal funding because we depend on this money to provide our students, especially our highest-need students, with the services they need,” Toll said, noting that Achievement First won a multi-year federal grant in 2015. “This funding is vital.”

National charter school groups have tried to walk a careful line with the new administration. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools praised the additional money for charter schools requested by the Trump administration, though criticized other aspects of the budget.

Meanwhile, at the meeting, frustration with the Trump budget was palpable. Many present believed that there needed to be a firm and public denunciation of the proposal.

Two weeks after the meeting, on March 29, USA Today published an op-ed by the heads of Achievement First, KIPP and Uncommon Schools and endorsed by a number of other charter school leaders.

“We cannot support the president’s budget as proposed,” the op-ed read, “and we are determined to do everything in our power to work with Congress and the administration to protect the programs that are essential to the broader needs of our students, families and communities.”

By the numbers

Trump’s proposed education budget: more for school choice, less for teacher training

PHOTO: Gabriel Scarlett/The Denver Post

In a similar proposal to last year, the Trump administration said Monday that it wants to spend more federal dollars on a school choice program — which includes private school vouchers — and less on after-school initiatives and teacher training.

Last year, the administration’s budget proposal was largely ignored, and many see this year’s as likely to suffer a similar fate.

The plan doubles down on the administration and its Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s belief that families should be able to use public money set aside for education to attend any school: public, private, charter, or virtual. It also highlights a key tension for DeVos, who praised the budget but has been sharply critical of past federally driven policy changes.

Overall, the administration is hoping to cut about 5 percent of funding — $3.6 billion — from the federal Department of Education. Keep in mind that federal dollars account for only  about 10 percent of the money that public schools receive, though that money disproportionately goes to high-poverty schools. (The budget initially sought even steeper cuts of over $7 billion, about half of which was restored in a quickly released addendum.)

The latest budget request seeks $1 billion to create a new “opportunity grants” program that states could use to help create and expand private school voucher programs. (The phrase “school voucher” does not appear in the proposal or the Department of Education’s fact sheet, perhaps a nod to the relative unpopularity of the term.) Another $500 million — a major increase from last year — would go to expand charter schools and $98 million to magnet schools.

The proposal would hold steady the funding students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But the request would take the axe to Title II, funding that goes toward teacher training and class-size reductions, and an after-school program known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. The administration has argued that both initiatives have proven ineffective. Teacher training advocates in particular have bristled at proposed cuts to Title II.

The budget is likely to get a chilly reception from the public education world, much of which opposes spending cuts and private school vouchers.

Meanwhile, the administration also put out $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, but it doesn’t include any money specifically targeted for school facilities.

school choice word choice

The ‘V’ word: Why school choice advocates avoid the term ‘vouchers’

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students, parents and activists against vouchers fill a committee room at the Tennessee State Capitol.

A new poll by the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children is meant to illustrate Americans’ support for school choice. But it also offers some insight about how advocates choose how to talk about hot-button education issues.

What caught our eye was something buried in the polling memo: Voters said they narrowly opposed school vouchers, 47 to 49 percent, even though similar approaches like “education saving accounts” and “scholarship tax credits” garnered much more support.

These findings help explain why advocates of programs that allow families to use public money to pay private school tuition often avoid the word “voucher.” The website of National School Week, for instance, doesn’t feature the term, referring instead to “opportunity scholarships.” (Notably, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who led AFC before joining the cabinet, herself has been less shy about saying “vouchers.)

The debate on how to brand “school choice” — or to critics, “privatization” — has been long running, and Republican pollsters have advised advocates to avoid the word “voucher.”

This phenomenon may help explain the national rise of tax credit programs, which function like vouchers but usually go by a different name and have a distinct funding source. It also makes it quite difficult to accurately gauge public opinion on the policy, as small tweaks in how a question is worded can lead to very different results.

The recent AFC poll points to substantial support for “school choice,” with 63 percent of respondents supporting that concept. That’s in response to a question with very favorable wording — defining school choice as giving a parent the ability to “send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.”

Still, support for school choice dropped several percentage points from last year. That’s consistent with a poll from August that found support for charter schools was falling, too.

Showing how wording can matter, a 2017 survey from the American Federation of Teachers asked parents their view of “shifting funding away from regular public schools in order to fund charter schools and private school vouchers.” The vast majority were skeptical.

When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan. Supporters and critics may get another shot this year in Arizona, where the fate of a recently passed voucher program will be on the ballot in November, barring a successful lawsuit by voucher advocates.