A growing wave of uprisings by teachers demanding not just higher pay but also more resources for their students is making it hard to ignore America’s deepening public education funding crisis. But President Donald Trump, ever the loudmouth, has surprisingly remained silent.
Maybe that’s because the facts can’t be spun. Total state and local K-12 funding per student is still well below what it was before the 2008 recession. Spending on prisons and jails has increased at triple the rate of public education funding in the last three decades.
Or because it takes a cruel heart to blame teachers — though some do. “On Friday, I went to the grocery store to get myself some dinner. And I had on my teacher shirt, and the governor had just talked about his proposal…and a gentleman said to me, ‘Have you gotten your lazy ass back to work now that you got your raise?’” reported a teacher during last month’s walkout in Arizona, where educator pay is more than $10,000 below the national average.
But the truth is, Trump has weighed in, just in a roundabout way. Earlier this month, the same day Arizona’s teachers returned to school, Trump declared the second week of May “National Charter Schools Week,” continuing his full-throated embrace of the publicly funded but privately operated schools.
The connection might not be obvious, but it’s there. A growing body of research is revealing that charter schools actually come with a cost to public school districts. A recent study by my organization found that during the 2016–17 school year, charter schools cost each of three California districts tens of millions of dollars in public funding.
From rural Pennsylvania to Nashville to Oakland, charter schools are taking already limited education funding, forcing local school boards to make difficult choices about what to cut at traditional, neighborhood schools to make up the difference. They cost the San Diego Unified School District $65.9 million last year, alongside $124 million in budget cuts the district was forced to make, including laying off teachers and slashing preschool.
Here’s how it works: when a student transfers to a charter school, all the funding for that student leaves with them, while all the costs do not. The student’s old school can’t lower it’s heating bill, make its principal part-time, or pay a teacher less because she has one less student.
“What’s happened with the proliferation of so many charter schools is that sometimes it just becomes a parallel school district and actually bleeds away money from neighborhood schools,” said John Lee Evans, a board trustee for San Diego Unified School District.
By supporting charter schools — and requesting more charter school funding in the federal budget — Trump has thrown his weight behind making the status quo even worse. And that’s on top of the tax cuts he helped usher through Congress earlier this year, which overwhelmingly benefit corporations and the wealthy, and could very likely force Washington to cut education spending even more.
Of course, the president isn’t alone. Democratic mayors in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C., have embraced charter schools to sidestep criticism and teacher demands for better pay and more student resources.
To be clear, charter schools aren’t the problem. Like neighborhood schools, some perform well and others don’t. But they’re a convenient way to pretend that we’re doing something to address the real problem, our utterly embarrassing lack of investment in public school students, no matter what neighborhood they live in, all in the name of cutting taxes and helping the already wealthy.
“We often look for the shiniest thing in education to get behind, and I think that we’re starting to see the impact of the charter system not necessarily being so long term that very shiny thing that we thought it was gonna be,” said Pecolia Manigo, Executive Director of the Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network (PLAN).
Funding doesn’t automatically guarantee success, but a lack of it does guarantee failure.
Jeremy Mohler is a writer and communications strategist for In the Public Interest, a nonprofit that advocates for the democratic control of public goods and services. He’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org
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