Trump Backs California Charter Schools, But the Feeling Isn't Mutual

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There are 116 students enrolled at Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School, an independent charter school in Los Angeles which opened this year with the help of a federal charter school grant. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

This story is part of our series “Trump Ed,” exploring how President Trump’s proposed federal education policies could impact California schools. The series was produced in collaboration with reporters from KPBS, KPCC and CALmatters.

As principal of a charter high school in South Los Angeles, Joshua Hartford said families would ask him the same question over and over again: "When are you opening a middle school?"

Hartford works for Green Dot Public Schools, the leading charter school operator in Los Angeles, and one of the top three largest in the nation.

He finally asked Green Dot executives if they would consider opening a middle school in one of L.A. County’s poorest areas -- the Florence-Firestone neighborhood.

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Fast-forward to this school year.

Green Dot’s Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School made its debut with 116 students enrolled.

Hartford traded his high school principal role to manage the campus.

“[Parents] kept asking, ‘What can you do for my child who’s in the seventh grade right now?’” he said. “I decided I’d better do something about it.”

Andrew Osterhaus, a teacher at Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School in South Los Angeles, introduces a lesson in his science class. The campus is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, the leading charter school operator in L.A.
Andrew Osterhaus, a teacher at Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School in South Los Angeles, introduces a lesson in his science class. The campus is operated by Green Dot Public Schools, the leading charter school operator in L.A. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Ánimo Florence-Firestone was established with help from the federal government.

In 2014, Green Dot won a $14 million grant from the Obama administration, allowing it to open or expand 20 schools in three states.

President Trump now wants to bolster that federal support for independent charter schools.

In his 2017-2018 proposed education budget, Trump proposes $500 million to help charter school organizations like Green Dot establish or expand campuses throughout the country.

At the same time, he’s proposing to slash federal funding for long-established after school programs, early learning initiatives and teacher preparation and retention.

Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School currently operates out of portable classroom buildings within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The independent charter is one of 228 charters in L.A. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

“Next to philanthropy, the federal government has been one of the steadiest and best friends of charter schools,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Association for Public Charter Schools.

With 228 independent charter schools, L.A. is currently home to more charters than any city in the nation.

However, Green Dot administrators say creating more charter schools from scratch will require a lot more federal funding.

“Five-hundred million [is a] big number, but it still is relatively small compared to the money locally that has to happen to get schools off the ground,” said Chad Soleo, Green Dot Public Schools’ vice president of advancement.

Soleo said opening just one charter school can cost up to $3 million -- which covers facilities, technology, furniture, textbooks and other curricular materials.

Because federal charter school grants only cover a small portion of that amount, charter operators have to rely heavily on philanthropy to make up the difference.

Another factor that could impede Trump's charter school plan: L.A. politics.

Charter expansion is already a deeply divisive issue in the L.A. Unified School District.

Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School in South Los Angeles is operated Green Dot Public Schools, the leading independent charter school operator in L.A. The organization would be eligible for more federal funding under President Trump's proposed education budget. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

The situation reached a boiling point in 2015 when the pro-charter Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation outlined a strategy to drastically expand L.A.’s charter school sector.

Public school supporters -- including L.A. teachers unions -- waged war, saying charters leech money and students from traditional public schools.

The plan generated backlash, and philanthropists have since changed their strategy.

Trump’s call for charter school expansion has evoked the same fear.

On the eve of the president’s inauguration in January, hundreds of protesters at Grand View Boulevard Elementary in L.A. Unified expressed their dismay over Trump’s advocacy of private school vouchers and charter schools.

Nine-year-old Luna Cruz had special message for Trump.

"You need to stop... trying to turn public schools into charters."

But not all charter school leaders are on board with Trump, who's unpopular in deep-blue L.A.

Andrew Osterhaus, a teacher at Ánimo Florence-Firestone Middle School in South Los Angeles, assists a student in his science class. Osterhaus has been a teacher in L.A. since 2001. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Some worry the president's support could prove toxic by galvanizing even more charter school opponents.

"It would be much more valuable for me, frankly, if [the president] just said he hates charter schools," said Caprice Young, chief executive officer and superintendent of the Magnolia network of charter schools. “The fact that Trump supports charter schools gives the opposition... an opportunity to equate charter schools with the things that Trump cares about, that most Californians are opposed to."

Some charter school groups have begun pushing back.

In March, several executives of charter school chains with big presences in California -- including Green Dot -- co-signed an op-ed in USA Today saying they couldn’t support Trump's budget.

The executives wrote they could not abide by modest increases to federal charter grant programs while broader education programs took deep cuts.