Is Donald Trump The Charter School Industry’s Worst Nightmare?

Jeff Bryant

Presidential candidate Donald Trump likely just handed the charter school industry the worst sort of favor.

In unveiling his education plan, the Republican candidate proposed a $20 billion federal block grant to allow states to give vouchers to low-income students to attend whatever school they want.

The proposal is the most full-throated support for school choice ever issued by a presidential candidate in a general election campaign. It’s also the ill-conceived, grandiose and politically polarizing gesture that many charter school proponents feared most.

In a recent op-ed in USA Today, two prominent proponents of charter schools – David Osborne of the neoliberal, D.C.-based Progressive Policy Institute and Richard Whitmire, author of a laudatory biography of Michelle Rhee – warn of “two possible nightmares” that could befall the charter school industry during the presidential race. One nightmare is that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton allows “charters to drift from the Democratic agenda” by providing only nuanced or lukewarm support for the schools. The other nightmare is that Trump’s support for these schools “turns charters into a right-wing cause … that deep down only wants to fund vouchers.”

What the authors worry about seems to now be a certainty. Thanks to Trump’s proposed giveaway to these schools, the political left will quite probably regard conservative support for charters as an attempt to “gut public schools.”

By making his speech extolling the virtues of “school choice” at a charter school – and at this particular charter school – Trump firmly cemented charter schools, at least as they are currently conceived, firmly in the right-wing political agenda.

First, Trump didn’t have to choose a charter school to make his pitch for school choice. He could have spoken at a genuine public school where the local community has embraced choice, such as a district magnet school or a school operated in a district “schools of choice” program.

It’s telling that the fact that many school districts already offer a form of choice within the public system doesn’t seem to interest him.

Also, he could have spoken at a private school that receives public taxpayer money, via vouchers, tax credits, or education savings accounts. That would at least have been more honest, since Trump’s likely intent is to direct public money to private pockets, like what happened with his fraudulent university and its ugly offspring.

(Perhaps Trump was reluctant to overtly endorse voucher programs because studies from Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin have shown students who use the vouchers to attend private schools actually perform worse on standardized tests than similar students who stay in public schools.)

Trump could also have chosen to appear at a charter school that represents the original intent of charters, which was to provide a school where teachers are primary decision makers and students come from a broad array of populations in the community.

But that’s not what Trump chose to do. As if to emphasize John Walton’s original intention to expand charter schools as a slippery slope toward universal privatization of public education, Trump chose a charter that represents in many ways what has become so problematic about these schools.

First, as a statement issued by left-leaning Progress Ohio explains, Trump chose to rail against the alleged failure of public schools at a charter school that is failing.

As the statement explains, the charter where Trump spoke, in Cleveland, Ohio, lags Cleveland public schools “on Overall Student Growth – a key indicator that measures students’ overall academic improvement.” On state assessment reports, the school earned a grade of “F” in growth, despite the fact the school receives more money per pupil than the average Cleveland school.

Worse still, the statement continues, the charter Trump visited is run by a for-profit company, Accel Schools Ohio. Its parent company is Panosophic, operated by Ron Packard, who according to an article posted by Alternet formerly operated K12 Inc., an all-online charter that “has been singled out as one of the biggest charter school boondoggles nationally.”

K12, Alternet reporter Steven Rosenfeld notes, has been repeatedly cited in studies for its subpar academic performance and has been subjected to state regulatory actions for alleged violations of “false claims, false advertising and unfair competition laws.”

Trump’s choice of Ohio for his speech is especially ironic. As Ohio based education blogger Jan Resseger writes, “I wonder if Donald Trump is aware that the lack of regulation of an out-of-control, for-profit charter school sector has, in Ohio, recently risen to the level of a scandal?”.

In one of her posts, she points to a recent report from a union-backed charter watchdog that explains, in Ohio, “at least 108 of the 292 charter schools that have received federal CSP (Charter School Program) funding (37 percent) have either closed or never opened, totaling nearly $30 million. Of those that failed, at least 26 Ohio charter schools that received nearly $4 million in federal CSP funding apparently never even opened, and there are no available records to indicate that these public funds were returned.”

In another review of Trump’s speech, The Washington Post education journalist and blogger Valerie Strauss points to a 2015 article in the Akron Beacon Journal, whose observances of Ohio charter schools concludes, “No sector – not local governments, school districts, court systems, public universities or hospitals – misspends tax dollars like charter schools.”

How charter school proponents have responded to Trump’s proposal is telling. Instead of the well-coordinated, highly unified messaging we’re used to seeing from the charter school industry public relations machine, reactions have run the gamut from elated support, to tepid acceptance, to utter bewilderment.

The response to Trump’s address from the Clinton campaign was telling as well. In a briefing, campaign policy adviser Maya Harris likened Trump’s proposal to “his fraudulent ‘Trump University’” and denounced it as an effort to “gut nearly 30 percent of the federal education budget and turn it into private school vouchers [that] would decimate public schools.”

The danger, according to the statement, is the potential diversion of federal funds to “private or parochial schools.” What about the danger of sending funds to unregulated charters? There’s no hint of how the Clinton campaign stands on that. But neither is there a reassurance that support for charter schools is a potential point for consensus.

“In theory,” charter proponents Osborne and Whimire write, Trump and Clinton should agree on charters. Trump has given support for a version of school choice, and Clinton has at times been supportive of charter schools. But now it looks like the “bipartisan approach” the charter industry has relied on for years to cover up its true intent has been disrupted. And that’s the charter industry’s biggest nightmare of all.

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