“There is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.”
With that line from his big education policy speech on Thursday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump placed himself firmly in the camp of school “reformers” who want to break up the public education system in America.
Trump declared his intent to use public funds for students to attend private schools and to promote the growth of charter schools, employing the language of Republicans who refuse to call public schools public schools and instead refer to them as “government-run education monopolies.” (Former Florida governor Jeb Bush is a leader in this, often calling public schools “government-run monopolies run by unions.” Let’s ignore the irony of Trump using the same language as Bush, whom Trump mocked during the GOP primaries.)
Trump said he would take $20 billion in federal funding — though he didn’t make clear where he would get it from — to establish block grants that states can use to help children in low-income families enroll at private and charter schools. In a somewhat mixed message, he said that although states would be able to use the money as they saw fit, he would push them to use it for school choice. He didn’t say how he would push.
School choice is one of the central tenets of corporate school reform, which also embraces standardized test-based “accountability” systems and the privatization of America’s public education system, the country’s most important civic institution. Supporters say the public education system is failing and that education should be subject to market forces. Critics say that school choice is taking resources away from traditional public schools, making efforts to improve them more difficult, and that civic institutions can’t properly be run as businesses in part because children aren’t products for sale.
Trump, a consummate showman, made some unusual choices on his mission to promote school choice. For one, he traveled to Ohio to speak at a charter school in a state that has long had one of the country’s most scandal-plagued charter sectors. How scandal-plagued?
In May 2015, the Akron Beacon Journal published the results of an investigation with this as the first paragraph: “No sector — not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals — misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.” Shortly after that, the Plain Dealer ran a story this year that started like this:
Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you.
Ohio’s $1 billion charter school system was the butt of jokes at a conference for reporters on school choice in Denver late last week, as well as the target of sharp criticism of charter school failures across the state.
The shots came from expected critics like teachers unions, but also from pro-charter voices…
A recent study by a voucher-supporting think tank found that Ohio students attending private schools with vouchers performed worse on standardized tests than similar students who stayed in public schools.
But there’s more: Trump delivered his speech at a charter school that has received lousy grades from the state for performance. According to this story by the Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan and Emma Brown, Trump spoke at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school that serves about 325 predominantly poor African American children. The story said:
The academy is a K-8 school where fewer than half the students scored proficient or above on standardized math and reading tests in 2014-2015, the most recent year for which state data are available. On its 2014-2015 state report card, the school received a D and an F on two measures of students’ achievement; an F for students’ progress on tests, or the gains they made over the course of a year; and an F for its record on closing achievement gaps.
Its highest grade was a C, for progress among students with disabilities and literacy improvement among kindergartners through third-graders.
The school’s website proudly declares that it was ranked the No. 1 community school for “value-added” in 2014 by a non-profit organization called Battelle for Kids. It says “value-added analysis is a statistical method that helps educators measure the impact schools and teachers have on students’ academic progress rates from year to year.” But value-added measurement, or VAM, has been slammed by assessment experts as an invalid and unreliable way of evaluating teachers and schools. The academy’s website doesn’t mention that.
Incidentally, or not so incidentally, the academy where Trump spoke is part of a for-profit chain of about 27 charters in a handful of states called ACCEL Schools, owned by a company co-founded and directed by Ron Packard, who used to be the man behind Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest online school operator in the country. Packard left K12 in 2014.
K12 has been the subject of numerous investigations in various states. In July 2016, for example, the state of California reached a settlement with the company involving millions of dollars over alleged violations — denied by K12, which did not have to admit any wrongdoing — of California’s laws regarding false claims, false advertising and unfair competition.
Why would Trump go to the Arts and Sciences academy to make his speech? His campaign didn’t say. David Quolke, president of the Cleveland Federation of Teachers, has an idea, saying in a statement:
“[W]e were excited when we heard Trump planned to visit a Cleveland charter school that recently won union representation. We thought maybe he’d have a conversation with the educators and students about what’s really needed — and that our members there could explain to him why they chose to organize and form a union, and how that’s given them a voice to advocate for themselves and their students.
“Sadly, he cancelled that visit and rescheduled at a for-profit chain run by an out-of-state investment firm. I can’t help but wonder if he found out the educators at the first school were unionized and was too scared to face questions from people who chose to join a union. Since he’s fought tooth and nail to keep his own employees from forming a union, it wouldn’t surprise me.
“Cleveland’s educators have a long history of proud unionism, and our voice has helped win resources and supports to give students a fair chance. I hope that, next time he visits, Donald Trump will visit our traditional public schools and talk to educators about what’s really needed to give kids the education they deserve.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Quolke’s statement.
Steve Dyer, a lawyer who is the education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio and who was once an Ohio state representative, wrote this on his blog:
If I wanted to make the point that charters can give kids hope where none before existed, I wouldn’t go visit an Accel School. I’d visit a Breakthrough or ICAN school. However, if I wanted to make hay with a potential political contributor with experience in education politics, I would visit Ron Packard’s school.
What is clear to critics of Trump’s policies is that he is no friend of public education. In fact, education historian and advocate Diane Ravitch — who has endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton — wrote on her blog:
If this guy is elected, you can kiss public schools goodbye.