CLEVELAND — Donald Trump made a renewed pitch here Thursday for the school choice movement — at a charter school that has received failing grades from the Ohio Department of Education for its students' performance and progress on state math and reading tests.
Scrutiny on the low marks the school received threatened to complicate Trump's pitch, as critics questioned his decision to visit this particular school before he even arrived in this critical battleground state.
The Republican presidential nominee used his appearance at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy to announce that his first budget would redirect $20 billion in federal funding to create a state-run block grant that he said he hoped would help poor children in low-performing public schools to enroll at charter and private schools.
"I'm proposing a plan to provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America," Trump said.
Before speaking about education when he took the podium in the school's cafeteria, Trump took sharp aim at Democratic rival Hillary Clinton on foreign policy and defended his repeated assertion that he was opponent of the Iraq War from the start, a claim that has been debunked by fact checkers.
The stop here marked Trump's latest attempt to reach out to African Americans, as polls show Clinton holding a wide lead among black and other minority voters. The charter school where he spoke serves about 325 predominantly poor African American children.
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.
On its website, the school claimed to be the top-ranked charter in Ohio for "value-added," a measure of academic growth, referring to a 2014 report produced by a nonprofit organization, Battelle for Kids. The school received an "A" rating for value-added on its 2013-2014 state report card. It's not clear why the school's performance declined so sharply from one year to the next.
Michael Betz, chief marketing officer for the company that runs the school, said scores went down in 2014-2015 because that was the first and only year that Ohio used the online Common Core-based test known as PARCC. The state dropped the test for the 2015-2016 school year after fielding many complaints about technical glitches. Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, "like many other schools, got caught up in this switchover test," Betz said.
Sandy Theis, executive director of left-leaning ProgressOhio, which has pushed for closer oversight of the state's charter schools, questioned why Trump chose to visit Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy.
"Ohio's charter schools are nationally ridiculed, and they should be. But Cleveland actually has some good ones," Theis said. "He goes to this lousy one and uses African American kids as props."
Asked about the decision to campaign here, Trump spokesman Jason Miller wrote in an email: "Mr. Trump believes that all children deserve the opportunity to receive a first-class education, and his school choice reform proposals will help do just that. Introducing school choice and challenging failed government monopolies is central to helping improve results and prepare our children for the rest of their lives."
Officials at the school said they were busy Thursday morning and would not be able to respond to questions about the school's performance until after Trump's visit.
Trump's plan to add "an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice" would be accomplished by "reprioritizing existing federal dollars," he and his campaign said. But they did not say specifically where in the budget the money would come from.
Trump said states would have the option to use the money as they wish, but he would push them to allow students to use the money to attend the schools of their choice.
Trump's desire to see federal dollars follow poor children to the public or private schools of their choice echoes proposals that other Republicans have floated, including during last year's overhaul of the nation's main federal education law. The measure did not make it into the law, which is called the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Vouchers and charter schools are generally popular among Republicans and are central planks in the education platform that Republican National Convention delegates adopted in July. Critics, including many Democrats and teachers union leaders, say that vouchers threaten to destroy public schools by siphoning money to private schools that are not accountable to voters or taxpayers.
Ohio has a state program that supplies taxpayer-funded vouchers to more than 18,000 students. A recent study of that program, released in July by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, found that students who used the vouchers to attend private schools actually performed worse on standardized tests than similar students who stayed in public schools.
The study did find improvement among students who tried to get a voucher but remained in public schools; researchers attributed those gains to improvements in public schools spurred by increased competition because of the voucher program.
Trump also said he would support merit pay for teachers and use the bully pulpit afforded by the presidency to advocate for candidates who run on making "school choice" more widespread.
"There is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly," Trump said. He said he was "proposing a plan to provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America."
Outside the event, a handful of protesters demonstrated against Trump. Some abortion rights activists held up signs telling Trump that women "deserve better than him." One man posted a banner reading: "Trump 'What do you have to lose?' Everything!" The sign was a reference to Trump repeatedly urging African Americans to vote for him in recent weeks because they have nothing to lose by doing so.
An intimate crowd gathered to hear Trump's speech included about a dozen schoolchildren who were predominantly African American. A smaller group of a dozen students, teachers and administrators of the school participated in the discussion before Trump's speech. He talked about his desire to increase the number of charter schools and other school choice options because “the traditional way, it’s not working so well.”
Trump has repeatedly criticized U.S. public schools for failing to measure up on international exams. But he has offered few details about how he would fix K-12 education, other than saying he wants to get rid of Common Core (which the president lacks the authority to do — academic standards are determined by states); scale back or possibly eliminate the U.S. Education Department; and expand school choice.
"We will rescue kids from failing schools," he told delegates at the Republican National Convention in July.
For years, Ohio's charter school law was criticized as too loose, allowing poorly performing schools to proliferate and persist. Lawmakers tightened oversight last year with a new law that calls for more accountability and transparency, including from the for-profit companies that manage some schools.
The Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy was run by a for-profit company, Mosaica Education, until a lawsuit against Mosaica forced the company into court receivership in October 2014, according the most recent state audit of the school.
Another for-profit company, Accel Schools, took over the management of the school in the summer of 2015. Both Accel and its parent company, Pansophic Learning, are headed by business executive Ron Packard, who previously helmed the for-profit company K12 Inc., one of the nation's largest and most controversial operators of full-time virtual schools, where students learn at home via computer.
K12 has expanded quickly and last year ran virtual schools in 32 states and D.C., bringing in nearly $1 billion in revenue. But it has faced growing scrutiny over its use of taxpayer dollars and its schools' often poor records on common measures of achievement, including standardized tests and graduation rates.
In July, K12 agreed to a $168.5 million settlement after California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a lawsuit alleging that its operation of 14 public virtual schools in the state violated false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws.
Brown reported from Washington.