President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t been coy about his vision for public schools: He wants them to become more like their private counterparts.
Trump proposes spending $20 billion to allow for “school choice” — the ability for families to use federal dollars in the form of vouchers on their school of choice, be it a charter, a magnet, private or a traditional public school.
Trump has not laid out a detailed plan, nor has he specified where the money will come from. He proposes “reprioritizing” existing federal money — a gambit experts say is sure to face bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who don’t want to lose existing funds for their district.
But his pick of billionaire donor Betsy DeVos to be education secretary suggests an aggressive approach to reshape education.
In her home state of Michigan, DeVos is a forceful proponent of charter schools. She and her husband have lobbied for them and other nontraditional alternatives.
Charter schools are publicly funded and independently run, sometimes operated by for-profit companies. That means they don’t have to follow the district’s rules, even though they may receive funding from them, or hire unionized teachers — a distinction that has put them at odds with teacher unions.
Advocates say that freedom lets charter schools sidestep policies that lock troubled schools into a cycle of failure, and allows for a more flexible, innovative curriculum.
Critics, however, say the promised outcomes don’t always live up to the hype. Charter school administrators have too much unchecked power, they argue, while money is siphoned from the poorest school districts to benefit charters at the expense of the area’s other public schools, where the majority of children remain.
Some studies determined that charter schools are not necessarily better, as a rule.
“We believe that the chance for the success of a child should not depend on winning a charter lottery, being accepted by a private school, or living in the right ZIP code,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the largest teacher’s union, in a statement after DeVos was nominated in November.
Charter schools are accountable to the local bodies that oversee them, known as authorizers. In some states, it’s the local school district; in others, it’s an independent organization created by state law.
DeVos herself has faced criticism in Detroit over the lackluster performance of charter schools she championed in Michigan.
A Detroit Free Press investigation, for example, found that charter school students in Michigan tended to score lower on achievement tests than students at more traditional schools. DeVos has been accused of pushing charter schools there despite their poor performance and lack of accountability.
“When I hear her name and I think about education, I think about choice without quality,” Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, part of a coalition to fix Detroit schools, previously told CNN.
Why charter schools caught on
Despite the controversy, charter schools have become wildly popular; some studies have concluded that charter schools outperform other public schools on average. Some have long waiting lists and selections are often made by lottery, with parents in failing school districts pinning hope for their children on whether or not they receive a charter slot.
The model has flourished because it taps into two fundamental American ideals: innovation and fairness, said educator Joe Nathan, who helped write the first charter law for Minnesota in 1992.
“Americans deeply believe this is one of our fundamental strengths, the opportunity to carry out new, innovative ideas to better society — so long as they’re responsible for the results and there’s a limit to those freedoms,” said Nathan, who advises districts and lawmakers on charters and other policy matters as director of Center for School Change.
Therein lies the controversy over charter schools. So what is the state of charter schools, how have they grown, and what could an infusion of $20 billion potentially translate to? Let’s take a look:
How widespread are charter schools?
Both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and the White House, have backed charter schools, fueling their explosive growth.
Only about 1% of students nationwide — less than 500,000 — attended charter schools in 2001, the first year the Department of Education tracked enrollments. By 2014, enrollment had quintupled to 2.5 million, slightly more than 5% of the nation’s school children. There were about 6,500 charter schools nationwide as of 2014.
Not all states have fully embraced the concept. Still, 43 states and Washington, D.C. have charter school laws. States such as Arizona and Colorado instituted charter-friendly regulations that helped fuel their growth, while other states have much stricter rules: Iowa, where local school boards maintain control, has only a small number of approved charter schools.
Congress set up funding during the Clinton administration to aid in charter school development, and Arizona and Colorado also make use of those funds, as do other states like California.
The overall result is a big disparity between different states: some have seen a flood of new charter schools, while others have barely seen a trickle.
Who attends charter schools?
Charter schools tend to be located in urban neighborhoods. As a result, they have more minority students and a higher percentage of students living in poverty compared to their traditional counterparts. Nationally, 17% of students in traditional schools were African-American in 2014, compared to 27% in charter schools.
Children in these neighborhoods often have little choice in schools because of the cost of private school. Charter schools may give them their only alternative. Civil rights leader Rosa Parks famously led efforts to bring charters to inner city Detroit as one of her last major initiatives before her death.
Because charter schools frequently do not answer to local school boards, critics allege that failing schools can fly under the radar in poor communities where parents may lack clout. On the other hand, plenty of inner city charters have a successful track record, meeting their targets for student performance and graduation rates.
Enrollment is small by design. Most states do not permit charters to levy taxes on buildings, and they often cannot afford to buy or build new space. As a result, some charters squeeze into empty space at other schools or in shopping malls.
Research shows that children from low-income families tend to do better in smaller schools. And many charter schools perform better than their traditional counterparts. Others, still, fail to meet standards set in their contracts.
What’s the outlook during a Trump presidency?
Trump’s plan is likely to go beyond new funding for charter schools alone.
Based on DeVos’s track record and past practices, school choice supporters anticipate a mix of federal and state funds will go toward vouchers that can be used on a variety of schools, including completely private schools, religious schools or even home schooling.
Trump spokesman John Truscott said DeVos is not doing any interviews before her hearing “out of respect for the Senate and the confirmation process.” He referred policy questions to the transition team, which did not return repeated requests for comment.
It’s not clear how any federal funding would be distributed, since spending per pupil at charter schools can fluctuate wildly. Nationally, the median spent on charters was $8,866 per student. But that ranges from the District of Columbia spending about $18,000 per charter school student to Idaho spending roughly $5,000.
Details like this may not be worked out for a while. And it’s possible a Trump administration could redefine current approaches to school choice.
“As Trump has shown so far, we shouldn’t assume just because people have been doing it this way that he’s going to do it the same way,” Nathan said.