Trump budget gives school choice programs boost

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget released Tuesday would try to boost public and private school choice programs, but some of the federal aid might not immediately benefit Michigan.

Under the Trump blueprint, there would be a $1.4 billion infusion for choice programs while billions of dollars would be cut from federal work study, before- and after-school centers, literacy grants and other programs. Political experts say the proposal is a starting point for budget negotiations with Republican House and Senate leaders.

The administration is proposing a $1 billion in Title I funds for a new program called “Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success,” or “FOCUS” grants. These grants are designed to encourage districts to adopt open-enrollment, school choice programs that allow federal, state and local money to follow low-income students to any new public school that they choose.

The money would tend to benefit mostly students in urban areas such as Detroit, Pontiac and Flint.

Another $167 million would be added to the Charter School Grants program to help states open new charter public schools or to expand and replicate existing facilities. Michigan has one of the nation’s largest number of charter schools.

“It’s a historic proposal because it would provide the largest school choice program ever conceived or designed,” said Greg McNeilly, a Grand Rapids-based Republican political strategist and a longtime ally of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “And it starts to shrink the Department of Education. It appears that it’s designed to be a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars to educate tomorrow’s leaders.”

But some Michigan Democrats blasted the proposal as a way to undermine public education.

“These policies have already failed children and families in Michigan and now Secretary DeVos wants to implement them nationwide,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, referring to Michigan’s charter schools. “Instead of working cooperatively to improve our schools, this administration is playing politics with the future of our children.”

A separate proposal for scholarships that would finance private school tuition could not be immediately used in Michigan because the state constitution bars the direct or indirect use of state money for private schools — except for transportation. The Education Innovation and Research program would receive a $250 million increase for scholarships to low-income students attending private schools.

The budget proposal does not override state and local law and is optional for each state, said Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill.

But choice advocates could use an ongoing state court fight to try to make Michigan eligible for the federal private school aid if it gets approved by Congress.

The Republican-led Michigan Legislature provided an extra $2.5 million to non-public schools to reimburse them for state mandates, including immunization compliance and safety drills. Public school and other groups have sued in state court to stop the expansion of state aid for private schools.

State Rep. Tim Kelly, who is named in the lawsuit and who may soon resign to take a job with DeVos at the U.S. Department of Education, said Tuesday the lawsuit could be a vehicle to get court approval for the federal choice money and strike down Michigan’s constitutional ban.

“I disagree that it undermines public education,” said Kelly, R-Saginaw Township. “I think education starts at the home and should be directed by each family … let’s remember that tax money is their money to begin with.”

He agreed that the constitution would have to be changed before schools could accept any federal money. In 2000, Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected a school choice ballot proposal by DeVos and her allies to amend the state’s constitution to allow government aid to benefit private schools.

But there may be a way for choice advocates to qualify federal aid for use in Michigan, McNeilly said. The state could create an avenue in which a nonprofit could accept ask private donations that, coupled with the federal aid, could be redirected to private schools, he said.

Michigan “cannot deny federal dollars,” McNeilly said, referring to the U.S Constitution’s supremacy clause. “If the federal dollars flow through something other than state government, say through a nonprofit,” students here might get federal funds for private schools.

But U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said the proposal would fail students.

“On top of doubling down on unaccountable charter expansion, the new plan proposed by Secretary DeVos and Republicans would give a huge tax break to the wealthiest Americans, disguised as a charitable contribution,” Kildee said in a statement.

Billions would be slashed from other education programs to make room for the expanded school choice initiatives.

Supporting Effective Instruction State grants would be eliminated, freeing up $2.3 billion. The program last year allocated 52 percent of its funding to professional development initiatives and 25 percent to class-size reductions, according to budget documents.

Another $1.2 billion would be cut from the 21st Century Learning Center program, eliminating funding to the before- and after-school centers.

Twitter: @HollyPFournier