Obama's support of charter schools falls short of campaign promise
As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama made a campaign pledge to increase federal support of charter schools.
Before we get into what Obama did and didn't do, let's go over a little background. The umbrella term "charter school” refers to a range of school types, but they have the following traits in common:
They are public schools with free tuition that don't have to abide by state or school district rules. In practice, this might mean non-unionized teachers, different disciplinary rules, longer school days, and a different curriculum, for example.
Students choose to enroll in charter schools, often with a random lottery process when schools get oversubscribed.
In exchange for freedom to operate independent of typical state or district rules, charter schools have specific performance standards they must meet, outlined in a charter. If the school fails, a state or school district -- whichever authorized the school in the first place -- can close it.
Although they receive public funding, they can also accept private donations.
They are not religious institutions.
Charter schools have a reputation for being more innovative and responsive to students' needs than traditional public schools, resulting in better student performance. Some research at universities backs up this belief.
Charter schools are a popular idea among education reformers, including the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, as well as Obama. Despite independent research that questions charter schools as a panacea for struggling public school systems, both national political parties include charter schools in their education platforms.
What Obama promised was to take an existing grant program under President George W. Bush and double its funding.
The chart below shows that hasn't happened.
The red bar represents funding under Bush in his last year ($208 million). The blue bars represent funding during Obama's time, which did increase by 22.5 percent by 2012. Still, that's a far cry from the purple horizontal line -- the requisite $416 million to fulfill this promise.
The Obama administration also used Race to the Top, a separate competitive grant program for states, to encourage the proliferation of high-performing charter schools. That isn't the same as dedicating money directly to charter schools, but it serves an overlapping purpose.
States stood a better chance of receiving Race to the Top grants if they showed they would hold charter schools accountable for progress on metrics such as students' standardized test scores; give charter schools equal access to funding as traditional public schools; and allow school districts to establish charter schools.
In all, the Education Department has spent about $5 billion through Race to the Top so far, with plans to extend another $550 million to school districts (bypassing states as the middlemen).
This is a case where supporters can call Obama a proven champion of charter schools by increasing funding a bit and critics can say he didn't do enough. As our chart shows, Obama the candidate had an ambitious funding goal about 77 percent bigger than what Obama the president actually accomplished. For that we rate this a Promise Broken.
Email interview with Gina Mahony, senior vice president for federal affairs at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Sept. 12, 2012
Email interview with Elizabeth Utrup, assistant press secretary at the U.S. Education Department, Sept. 12, 2012
Office of the President-Elect, Agenda: Education
U.S. Government Printing Office, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2010, Department of Education
U.S. Government Printing Office, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2011, Department of Education
U.S. Government Printing Office, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2012, Department of Education
U.S. Government Printing Office, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2013, Department of Education
U.S. Education Department, Office of Innovation and Improvement, Charter Schools Program (CSP) Seven Grant Competitions
Department of Economics at Harvard University and the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University, The Impact of Charter Schools on Student Achievement, May 2004
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, The Boston Foundation, and the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, Student Achievement in Massachusetts' Charter Schools, January 2011
BarackObama.com, Celebrating Black History Month: Obama's accomplishments in education, February 7, 2012
Romney: Believe in America, A Chance for Every Child: Mitt Romney's Plan for Restoring the Promise of American Education, May 23, 2012
Democrats.org, 2012 The Democratic Party National Platform: Moving America Forward
GOP.com, 2012 Republican Party National Platform: We Believe in America, Consumer Choice in Education
Budgget plans sets course for doubling charter school funding
In February 2009, the White House released the outline for its proposed 2010 budget, which pledged an increase in support for "effective charter schools." According to the budget plan, "The President"s Budget will promote successful models of school reform by taking the first major step to fulfilling its commitment to double support for charter schools. The Department of Education will help create new, high-quality charter schools, ensure that States properly monitor and support these schools, and, in the case of chronic underperformance, close existing charter schools."
In April, the White House released more details about the proposed budget, committing $52 million in new funds for the Charter Schools Program, the State Facilities Incentive Grants and the Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program. That translates to a 25 percent increase in charter school funding from this year.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools president and CEO Nelson Smith released a statement on May 7, 2009, saying, "President Obama has taken a strong first step toward fulfilling his campaign promise to double federal funding for public charter schools."
"This increased funding, a 25% increase over Fiscal 2009, will provide new resources to start up high-quality public charter schools and help them deal with the difficulties of accessing capital support at the state level," Smith said. "We appreciate the strong statement the President is making here with a large increase in charter school funding at a time when resources are tight."
According to Brooks Garber, federal policy director for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, it appears as though the president's plan is to increase funding 25 percent a year, so that the promise would be fully fulfilled by the end of his first term.
"The proof will be in the pudding," Garber said.
We note that the president's budget proposal is just that. It needs the support of Congress, and it appears Congress may not be as generous as the president was in his proposed budget. The House has passed an education spending bill that would increase charter school funding by $40 million ($12 million shy of the target 25 percent increase), and the Senate has not yet passed its version.
If the increase comes in at the House number, "somehow, the president would have to make that up in future years to fulfill his campaign pledge," Garber said.
This promise still has a way to go. But Obama did put forward a long-term plan to keep his pledge over the course of his four-year term, and there's still time in the next few years to make up any shortfalls if Congress decides to reduce the proposed increase next year. We think Obama has done enough to move this one to In the Works.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "Race to the Top: New Focus on Charter Innovation," by Nelson Smith, Nov. 12, 2009
White House Office of Budget and Management, President's Budget: Fact Sheets, U.S. Department of Education
White House Office of Budget and Management, President's Budget: A New Era of Responsibility
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "President Obama Proposes $52 Million Increase for Public Charter Schools," May 7, 2009
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, "Obama Proposes Increase For Charter School Funding in FY 2010 Education Budget," Feb. 26, 2009
Interview with Brooks Garber, federal policy director for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nov. 13, 2009