At his State of the Union address, President Trump created an apparently heartfelt moment on behalf of Philadelphia fourth-grader Janiyah Davis. Having been “trapped in failing government schools,” Trump announced Davis would be granted a full scholarship to a private school, personally financed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Except, the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered, Davis doesn’t attend a “failing” school. She attends a high-quality public charter.
Here’s a brief refresher: Charter schools are not the same as private schools. Private schools are funded by tuition dollars, and can select which students to admit. Charter schools are publicly financed, do not charge tuition, and cannot select their student bodies. If they have more applications than available slots, charters typically have to use a lottery. Charter schools and private schools are often confused. A Washington Post story about Trump’s speech says the president appealed to his base on issues like “religious liberty, guns and charter schools,” when, in fact, Trump was touting private school vouchers, not charter schools.
Trump’s budget, released today, further clarifies the president’s interest in vouchers, as opposed to charters. Trump’s budget would fold the federal Charter Schools Program, which currently spends $440 million a year to open new charter schools and promote information about which ones are effective, into a block grant, dumping the money to states to spend as they see fit. That is, federal charter funding (which does only account for a fraction of spending for charter schools) would disappear.
Trump proposes to cut the entire Department of Education budget by 8 percent. Trump would redirect some of the cuts to public education into private schools, by creating a $5 billion tax credit for private vouchers. Studies have found vouchers are highly ineffective at increasing performance by low-income students, while urban charters — though variable — are often highly effective. (Conservatives often prefer vouchers because, unlike public charters, they support religious schools that operate totally outside public control.)
Trump’s plan to cut education funding is a huge political liability. And his proposal to eliminate federal funding for charters should make it clear that supporting charter schools is literally the opposite of Trump’s education agenda. Trump describing a charter school as a “failing government school” in his State of the Union address is not a mistake. It’s his actual worldview.