Donald Trump Comes to Cleveland, Steps Right into Charter School Regulation Mess

As you may have read, Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for President, showed up in Cleveland last Thursday to announce his education plan—to make $20 billion in federal block grants to the states to expand school choice. The Washington Post reports that it is unclear where that money would come from: “Trump’s plan to add ‘an additional federal investment of $20 billion towards school choice’ would be accomplished by ‘reprioritizing existing federal dollars’….”

Trump’s choice of venue for staging his announcement is fascinating. Maybe he hasn’t been paying close attention, because he stepped right in the middle of Ohio’s big mess: the state legislature has persisted all year in proving that its members are beholden to the campaign donations that are ensuring they don’t regulate for-profit charter schools. And yet, to make his big announcement, Trump went straight to a for-profit charter school. And the for-profit charter school Trump visited is owned by Ron Packard, the former CEO of the notorious national K12 Inc. chain of online charter schools, where Packard was paid a salary of $5 million per year.  Here is what education reporter, Patrick O’Donnell explained about Ron Packard in Friday’s Plain Dealer:

“Trump’s appearance at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy (CASSA) is drawing attention to a charter school that usually escapes notice. But its owner Ron Packard has been a major figure in the national charter school community for years as the founder and former CEO of online school powerhouse K12 Inc… Packard helped build K12 into the largest provider of online classes, with e-schools in multiple states. Those include Ohio Virtual Academy, the second-largest online school in Ohio, with 13,000 students. But Packard left K12 in 2014 and founded Pansophic Learning to create the new ACCEL Schools charter school network. Last year, he bought management rights to 12 schools from controversial charter operator White Hat Management and several schools, including CASSA, from the financially struggling but higher performing Mosaica network… ACCEL schools now has 27 schools in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota, with the majority here in Ohio.”  Packard came to Cleveland with Donald Trump and, before Trump spoke on Thursday, O’Donnell reports that, “Packard moderated a panel discussion on school choice and the value of charters.”

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?  This blog has extensively covered the campaign contributions, lawsuits, and obfuscations of another for-profit charter operator, William Lager of the notorious Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, in his attempt to ensure that Ohio’s legislature does not crack down to prevent billions of dollars in profits flowing to Lager and other for-profit charter operators.

Trump’s full blown support for school choice comes at a time when Ohio’s ECOT scandal is among many reports of the diversion of public dollars, and of civil rights violations and academic malpractice as states have failed adequately to regulate the charter school sector.  In August, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, “highlighted more than $2.5 million in lease reimbursements to nine charter schools, including the Propel Charter School System in Allegheny County, the Chester Community Charter School in Delaware County, and School Lane Charter School in Bucks County… ‘What we found in some of our audits is that the same people who own and operate charter schools, they themselves create separate legal entities to own the buildings and lease them to charter schools.’ DePasquale said.”

Then last week there was Jeff Bryant’s report, Who Gains Most from School Choice? Not Low-Income Students of Color.  Bryant features Laura Barr, a Denver, Colorado, school choice consultant who charges a steep fee to help parents figure out their choices in that city’s education marketplace and then position their children to be admitted to the school of their choice: “Laura Barr has operated her school choice consultancy for several years. Business is good. Her thriving practice has five employees and frequently contracts with various specialists. Her fee scale varies depending on the needs of the family and the time pressures involved, but charges can range as high as $2,750…. Clients come to her, she says, ‘because they really care about their children’s education but don’t understand all the options and the buzzwords that are used in describing various education practices.’… What about parents in Northeast Denver, an area generally populated with low-income families of color? ‘If anyone from Northeast Denver tries to get into a popular school in another part of town for the fall semester next year, they’re going to have a hard time,’ she replies.  ‘It’s just kind of segregated.'”

And finally there is California, the subject of a blockbuster expose by Carol Burris, the Executive Director of the Network for Public Education. Burris’ report was published by Valerie Strauss in her Washington Post column. Burris explains: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. Last year there were 1,230. Twenty-percent of the students in San Diego County attend its 120 charter schools… How many is enough when it comes to charters, given the scandals and the problems and the lack of evidence of overall success? It appears as if there are more charters than California needs, but there are certainly not as many as charter advocates want. Eli Broad, who made his fortune building tract housing and selling insurance, is a Los Angeles multibillionaire who has given a fortune to charterize the city and the state. His involvement drew national attention when his foundation’s plan for charter school expansion in Los Angeles was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. It proposed the following goals: ‘(1) to create 260 new high-quality charter schools, (2) to generate 130,000 high-quality charter seats, and (3)to reach 50 percent charter market share.’  The term, ‘market-share’ refers to children.”

Burris describes the role of the California Charter Schools Association and traces funders who contributed to the organization’s $22,120,466 income in 2014. CCSA and its 501(c)(4), CCSA Advocacy, “work together to thwart legislative efforts that would increase charter oversight, such as AB 709 that would make charter board meetings public, allow the public to inspect charter school records, and prohibit charter school officials from having a financial interest in contracts that they enter into in their official capacity…. AB 709 is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk awaiting action.”  Burris adds: “Brown, who has been a supporter of charter schools, has not indicated what he will do….”

Burris describes some seemingly egregious practices by California charter schools, practices that, according to Burris, have merely become the way the charter sector works in that state: “You can find a charter in a mall right near a Burger King, where students as young as 12 meet their ‘teacher on demand.’ Or, you can make a cyber visit to the ‘blended learning’ Epic Charter School, whose students are required to meet a teacher (at a convenient, to be determined location) only once every 20 days. There is an added bonus upon joining Epic: Students receive $1,500 for a personal ‘learning fund,’ along with a laptop computer. The enrollment site advertised that students could boost that fund by referring others to the charter chain.”

And, “A superintendent can expand his tiny rural district of 300 students to 4,000 by running ‘independent study’ charters in storefronts in cities miles away, netting millions in revenue for his district, while draining the sometimes unsuspecting host district of students and funds.”

I urge you to read carefully the report from Pennsylvania as well as the critiques from Bryant and Burris. And I invite you to consider with me what Donald Trump can be thinking when he says he will redirect billions of federal education dollars—presumably Title I and IDEA funds—to increase the “market share” of children who leave their public schools for such morally questionable, and very lucrative, enterprises.

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