John Oliver’s recent segment on charter schools casts them as criminal entities with oversight so lax that ghetto grifters, hip hop celebrities, and religious women with shopping addictions have come to feed on the largesse.
As expected, voices in the charter school camp are speaking up.
My friend Justin Cohen wrote a level piece saying Oliver went off target by focusing on 5% of public schools – those that are chartered – and leaving the other 95% untouched.
Nelson Smith writing for The Seventy Four called out Oliver’s writing team for putting the spotlight on an “unrepresentative sample” of charter schools.
Peter Cunningham at Education Post chimed in with a useful reminder: a story about charter schools should at least consult with the parents and students of color who support those schools.
Oliver’s segment keeps them silent (with the exception of one student from KIPP schools who says he was taught in the early years to think about college). He chooses to load the story with a quick review of states with the worst charter school laws, and then a rapid succession of carefully selected charter school buffoons who plagiarize, steal, and spit up bad analogies or bible verses.
One group of these fools go so far as to turn their charter school into a makeshift nightclub in the evenings.
It’s all so hilarious. Especially if you forget about the millions of parents desperately waiting to get into charter schools that are not run by buffoons or thieves; and schools that do not become saloons for wayward educators at night.
These schools provide small, safe, and academically strong programs in urban education deserts. They are schools like Mastery Charters that substantially raise student achievement in Philadelphia; Urban Prep which is celebrated annually in the black media for sending 100% of their graduates to college; and the RePublic charter schools that consistently bests the local district schools in Nashville.
These schools - and their parents, students, and staff – get lost in the progressive whitewash of popular media. We should stop that if children and education are priorities because some things - like reading below grade level - just aren’t funny.
My unscientific guess is that most of Oliver’s viewers are more familiar with the Graduate Record Examinations and foodie circuits than the yawn-inducing research studies and counter-studies proving and disproving the success or failure of charter schools. That makes them perfect targets for highly stylized infotainment that makes smart people dumber.
It also makes them dangerous.
The issue for me becomes the fried chicken and watermelon problem. You take something universal and make it specific and powerfully negative for a targeted minority population. It generates undue bias by projecting the ills we all share onto one group of scapegoats. In education, charter school parents are educational minorities with far too few progressive defenders. Their schools are accused relentlessly of cherry-picking their students, “counseling out” unsuccessful students,” getting results by using some recently discovered educational voodoo called “test-prep,” and making students walk the line in hallways with their fingers over their lips.
Somehow critics making these charges refuse to address the serious and fundamental problems on their own system. In fact, traditional schools select students in inequitable patterns using residential address exclusionary tool (the ultimate cherry-picking); school districts contract with alternative schools to take students they can’t or don’t want to educate; schools sort students by supposed ability or through clever systems of determining talent, and, in 19 states public schools are still allowed to paddle students.
While these practices are systemic in traditional school systems, there is an effort to keep the focus on the shortcomings of charter schools. Public support of charters remains strong for now, but that can change as the narrative the public hears is increasingly negative.
According to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute 73% of articles written about charter schools in 2005 were neutral (only 12% were negative). By 2015 negative articles more than doubled, and progressive media outlets like Salon, Alternet, Yes! Magazine, Common Dreams, and The Progressive have committed to feeding their college-educated and mostly white readers a steady diet of anti-charter humbug.
Education reformers might be right when they caution against making too much of a cable “news” segment (even as this episode is amplified through dozens of other publications). But it’s dangerous to ignore the power of language, comedy, and art. What the public reads, finds funny, and consumes intellectually impacts the way they think and act. Sometimes that impacts policy, votes, and it can put lives in jeopardy.
Oliver’s 4 million viewers and 3 million Twitter followers could be as dangerous as Trump voters if appealing to their ignorance goes unchecked. A downward spike in public opinion against charter schools at the very time many black and brown parents sit on waiting lists to get in them is a problem we can’t accept.
For that reason, I’m offering a free fried chicken dinner – complete with watermelon and Kool Aid – to the first ten millennial hipsters that find John Oliver funny (email me).
Of course, I won’t eat it with you publicly. You know why.