Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump delivered remarks on education policy at a Cleveland, OH, charter school September 8. Although Trump’s statements seemed to reflect somewhat vague centrist stances in favor of so-called “school choice” and accountability measures, media should pay attention to the context of Trump’s visit. The nominee appeared at a struggling school privately managed by a for-profit company led by an education privatization proponent with ties to the right-wing American Legislative Education Council (ALEC) and a track record that’s been criticized by even national charter school advocates.
Trump Delivered Remarks At A Cleveland Charter School
Trump Appeared At A Cleveland Charter School On September 8. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA), a public charter school on the east side of Cleveland, OH, on the afternoon of September 8. Trump’s remarks addressed his campaign’s education policies, calling for greater federal funding to allow students to exercise “school choice” and for merit pay for teachers. As reported by The Washington Post:
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. [The Washington Post, 9/8/16]
Trump Began His Remarks By Thanking Ron Packard. As reported by Education Week:
Before launching into his speech, Trump thanked Ron Packard, who is the CEO of Panosophic (sic) Learning, an education company that operates virtual and brick-and-mortar schools. Packard founded K12 Inc., where he also served as CEO, and left that company in 2014. K12 Inc. has been the subject of legal complaints from investors about its financial statements, and from California parents concerning the company's claims about student enrollment and schools' academic records. [Education Week, 9/8/16]
The Struggling School Trump Visited Is Operated By The Private Company Of Major Education Privatization Figure Ron Packard
Wash. Post: Cleveland School “Has Received Failing Grades From The Ohio Department Of Education” The Washington Post reported that the school where Trump spoke, the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA), has performed poorly by many recent measures:
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 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.
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.” [The Washington Post, 9/8/16]
CASSA Is Managed By Mosaica Education, A For-Profit Company Acquired By Ron Packard’s Pansophic Learning. CASSA is listed as one of several Ohio charter schools managed by Mosaica Education on its website. Mosaica is a for-profit school management company that was purchased by a subsidiary of the for-profit Pansophic Education in June 2015. [MosaicaEducation.com, accessed 9/8/16; Ohio Secretary Of State, Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy Audited Financial Statements, 5/31/15]
Packard Previously Earned Millions As CEO Of Online Charter Company K12 Inc. Packard previously served as the CEO of K12 Inc., a for-profit company that primarily operates online charter schools. From 2009 to 2013, Packard reportedly earned more than $19.48 million in compensation from K12 Inc. [Center for Media and Democracy, accessed 9/8/16]
K12 Inc. Has Been Universally Criticized For Low Performance And Mismanagement. The disastrous results of K12’s schooling model have been well-documented in investigative reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and PolitiFact, and in research from left-leaning and right-leaning organizations including the Center on Reinventing Public Education. The most recent reports from Mathematica Policy Research, Stanford University’s Center for Research in Education Outcomes, and the Center on Reinventing Public Education all concluded that “students of online charter schools had significantly weaker academic performance in math and reading, compared with their counterparts in conventional schools.” BuzzFeed News’ coverage of the reports concluded that the “abysmal results” of the reports “united in scorn” both charter school advocates and teachers unions. [Media Matters, 4/27/16, 7/18/16]
Packard Was An Enthusiastic Proponent Of Political Lobbying On Behalf Of K12. Packard is well-known for his enthusiasm for political lobbying as means to drum up lawmaker support for his education business endeavors. In 2011, Packard claimed that lobbying efforts geared toward state officials were a “core competency” of K12 Inc., according to The New York Times. Until recently, K12 Inc. called itself a “proud” member of the corporate-driven bill mill American Legislative Education Council (ALEC), which has pushed virtual schools legislation that would create greater demand for products like those produced by K12. K12 has also contributed financially to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a pro-privatization think tank that also frequently touts digital learning tools in its policy recommendations. Local reports in Wisconsin also concluded that Packard’s personal influence and financial contribution may have spurred proposed 2008 state legislation benefiting virtual charter school operators. [Media Matters, 4/27/16, 7/18/16; The New York Times, 12/12/11, One Wisconsin Now, 1/14/08]
Ohio’s Charter School Industry Has Been Universally Criticized, Even By Charter School Supporters, For Poor Oversight
Plain Dealer: “Ohio’s Charter Schools Ridiculed … Even By National Charter Supporters.” In 2015, education experts from across the ideological spectrum criticized Ohio’s massive charter school industry for poor performance, a reliance on for-profit operators, and a lack of oversight, stemming from lenient state regulations. As reported in the Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer:
Ohio, the charter school world is making fun of you.
Ohio's $1 Billion (sic) 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.
One after another, panelists at the conference organized by the national Education Writers Association targeted Ohio's poor charter school performance statewide, Ohio's for-profit charter operators and how many organizations we hand over charter oversight keys to as the sponsors, or authorizers, of schools.
“There are some operators who are exploiting things,” said Todd Ziebarth, a vice president of the [National] Alliance [for Public Charter Schools].
He specifically named K12 Inc. and White Hat Management as major offenders. K12 is the nation's largest provider of online charter schools and runs Ohio Virtual Academy, while White Hat is an Akron-based operator of many low-scoring charter schools that has regularly been a large donor to Republicans in Ohio. [The Plain Dealer, 3/2/15]
Stanford Study: Ohio Charter School Students Are Learning Less On Average, Though Urban Charter Schools Are Performing Well. A study from Stanford University’s Center for Research of Educational Outcomes (CREDO) found that the average student attending an Ohio charter school was weeks behind a traditional public school student in learning outcomes. Charter school students in the urban areas of Ohio, like Cleveland, were found to outperform traditional public school students -- pointing to a wide range in charter school quality throughout the state. From the report:
Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a traditional public school (TPS), the analysis shows on average that students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics. The impact is statistically significant: thinking of a 180-day school year as “one year of learning”, an average Ohio charter student would have completed 14 fewer days of learning in reading and 36 fewer days in math. There are positive notes found in the analysis. For example, students in urban charter schools in Ohio post superior yearly gains compared to the statewide average student performance; this finding is unique among the numerous state studies that CREDO has completed. Another positive result is the learning gain superiority for students in poverty and especially for black charter students in poverty: their progress over a year's time outpaces that of equivalent TPS students. [Center for Research of Educational Outcomes, Charter Performance In Ohio, 12/5/14]
Akron Beacon Journal Investigation: Ohio Charter Schools Misspend Tax Dollars More Than Any Other Sector. A May 2015 investigative report from the Akron Beacon Journal concluded that “no sector -- not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals -- misspends tax dollars like charter schools in Ohio.” The review of more than 4,000 audits released in 2014 found that charter schools in the state misspent public funds “nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency,” and concluded that the estimate could be low due to limited charter school transparency. [Akron Beacon Journal, 5/30/15]
Ohio Passed Legislation Attempting To Improve Its Charter Industry, But The Outcomes Are Unclear. Following months of criticism, Ohio state legislators passed a bill to reform the state’s charter school industry by imposing measures to increase transparency and accountability for how schools manage public funding. As Slate writer Laura Moser explained in June, the reforms have resulted in some charter school closures, but the full impact of the legislation is still playing out, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently asked the Department of Education to closely monitor Ohio’s charter schools:
Ohio has long been an embarrassment to charter-school supporters nationwide, with its trail of scandal and graft and abysmal student performance. So it seemed like a good development when, in late 2015, the state passed a big charter-school reform bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The new law was an attempt to add “transparency and accountability” to Ohio’s massive (and in the past, massively mismanaged) $1 billion charter-school sector: a series of small changes, like more detailed financial reporting requirements and fewer big-money conflicts of interest, that, taken all together, would produce a more tightly regulated charter industry and better schools.
Are the reforms working? There are definite signs of progress: The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on June 14 that 11 low-performing charter schools in the state have lost their financial backing as a result of the new restrictions.
But apparently Ohio isn’t out of the woods yet, at least not according to senior U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who also happens to be a shortlister for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s VP slot. (On Tuesday, Brown called Donald Trump a “factory of bad ideas.”)
On Monday, Brown sent a letter to Education Secretary John King in which he asked the feds to keep monitoring Ohio’s troubled charter sector closely. [Slate, 6/21/16]
Bipartisan Education Experts Have Criticized What Little Trump Has Said On Education So Far
The Washington Post, The Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, US News, and The New York Times Have All Pointed Out Inaccuracies In Trump’s Statements On Education. A wide variety of outlets and publications have labeled as false or inaccurate Trump’s comments on education, which have mostly involved criticism of the Common Core state standards. In March, for example, the New York Times’ Upshot blog concluded that “Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand Common Core.” Reporters at The Washington Post have noted inaccuracies in his statements on the learning standards at least five times since the start of his campaign. [Media Matters, 5/11/16]
Experts Have Expressed Fear And Concern Over Trump’s Education Policy Stances. Major education-focused outlet Education Week has chronicled statements from a number of prominent bipartisan education experts expressing concerns about Trump’s lack of policy specifics and penchant for “pick[ing] up Republican talking points” without critically thinking through “what it would mean to take action” as president. Former advisers to Republicans Mitt Romney and President George W. Bush were among the wide range of education professors and researchers to express concern and skepticism about Trump’s understanding of the federal role in education. From a March 9 Education Week article (emphasis added):
Marty West, a professor of education at Harvard University who advised Gov. Mitt Romney's Republican presidential bid in 2012 and has worked with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on K-12 issues, isn't about to sign onto the Trump train—and he doesn't know anyone else who is.
“The central challenge for any presidential candidate, especially on the Republican side, is to translate his or her vision into a policy agenda that respects the federal government's limited capacity to effect change,” West said. Trump has “picked up Republican talking points” including on school choice, “the influence of teachers' unions, the importance of local control, [but] he does not appear to have given any thought to what it would mean to take action on those issue from Washington.”
It's not all about Trump's edu-views, which West acknowledges are a “wild card” at this point. West has other problems with the candidate. “His behavior over the course of the campaign should disqualify him,” West said.
Andy Smarick, who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President George W. Bush, has a different take. He's happy to provide advice to any policymaker who wants it. But he has no idea at this point who Trump is listening to on K-12.
“In my adult life I've never seen a top-tier candidate be so light on policy,” Smarick said. “I've never seen a candidate so light on governing principles. I don't know if he believes in parental choice. I don't know if he believes in Title I portability. I've never been in a position of not knowing what the North Star of a major candidate is on education policy.” [Education Week, 5/9/16; Media Matters, 5/11/16]