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Semi-Informed Late Night Host Takes Cheap Shots at Charter Schools

“I don’t like John Oliver.”

“I don’t like his smarmy British sarcasm, and I love smarmy British sarcasm.”

“I don’t like the way his face contorts to feigned surprise whenever he’s talking about a mundane topic that needs a little “push” to make it interesting.”

In short, “I think John Oliver is a goober…a less-funny Jon Stewart, a less-irritating Trevor Noah, a pot-stirrer in the vein of Paul Finebaum.”

Those are all things I might say if I judged John Oliver based only on a few episodes of his oh-so-hip HBO spew. Those are the ridiculous things I’d say if I judged him as blindly as he judged education reform on Sunday night.

In his most recent show, he took aim at charter schools. The sheer predictability of his specious harangue prompted me to come post something on this blog. That’s not a lot of fun for me, because I’m getting DDOSd like crazy and I know this is going to take a long time to publish, but whatever. I feel like procrastinating.

So, let’s just walk through, point by point:


“We’re going to set aside whether or not charter schools are a good idea in principle…instead look at how they operate in practice.”

Ok, let’s set aside whether your show is remotely entertaining or raising important issues, and instead focus on the specific and exceptional reasons why I disagree with you.


“Charters in some states can have an alarming failure rate…two years ago a Florida paper found that since 2008, 119 charter schools had closed down there, 14 of which had never even finished their first school year.”

Pandering to his millennial audience (most of whom could be hearing about charters for the first time, ugh), he referenced a terrible TV show that ran more than one season as an example of…wait, what point was he making? Oh yeah…that the show lasted longer than some charter schools. What a funny guy.

He later implied that authorizers do not rigorously vet charter applications before approving them, pointing to the application of one such charter school that closed, Ivy Academy, as an example. That school plagiarized the mission statement of a Franklin Academy school in Broward County. It was approved, opened, and the founder of that charter school is now awaiting trial for grand theft.

As is typical among critics of charter schools, bad apples become the rule rather than an exception. In reality, none of us ever want charters like that to be approved in the first place. Unfortunately, that’s not up to advocates for charter schools, it’s up to authorizers. Occasionally, an “advocate” (i.e. phony) gets through who shouldn’t.

Excluding a few very rare exceptions, Florida law only allows school districts to authorize charter schools. The charter school departments at those Districts are overworked during charter season, which is typically the end of summer, right when school is starting. They look for important keywords throughout the application, they make sure the budget is viable and realistic, and they do background checks on all the governing board members, among many other things.

This process does tend to filter out the apps that don’t really have their act together. For example, Palm Beach County alone denied 4 charter apps last year, and Polk County denied all the charter applications submitted to it in 2014. However, these departments don’t really have the bandwidth to compare each application to one another, especially when a new app (Ivy) plagiarizes one they haven’t seen in a while (Franklin).

But hey, it’s all about building a better system, so I’m not averse to criticism of the authorization process. There are obviously kinks in the machine. Let’s find them and fix them, which will make school choice even more efficient and effective. Constructive criticism does not bother me.

What does frustrate me is when passing critics like John Oliver joke about shutting down charter schools without considering the fact that some of the worst public schools in the country remain in business (and no, I’m not talking about other charters).

What about all the failing conventional, District-run public schools that can’t be shut down, or even purged, because of archaic zoning rules and teacher unions? The whole reason we have charters is because demanding parents and jaded educators sought alternatives to failing schools and schools that didn’t fit their child.

It’s all about choice, and at least parents in a failing charter school will be forced to make a new, better choice when it shuts down. Meanwhile, all the kids in the District-run school are trapped until they graduate or drop out.

But back to Mr. Oliver:

“There is a lot at stake with charter schools. They get paid on a per student basis. On average, that is about $7,000 for every enrollment.”

Wrong. In Florida, it’s closer to $6,300 on average, and that’s still significantly less than conventional District-run public schools get per head, meaning charter schools have to do more with less just to remain in business. For example, a study by the University of Arkansas put the weighted disparity of per pupil funding at $2,129 (or 21% less than the District-run public school). At least it’s not Louisiana, where public charters get 58% less than their District-run counterparts.

I used to see this funding disparity as a tremendous disadvantage, but now I look at it as one of the more valuable pieces of ammunition in the funding argument. Critics of charters (and private school choice) always claim that our tax dollars are being siphoned into privately-managed charter schools, but my retort to them now is: “Yeah? So what?”

Whose tax dollars are we talking about here? That’s right, our tax dollars, meaning mine are included. What if I don’t want my child to attend the local public school to which we’re zoned? In fact, recent polls show that a majority of Americans want charter schools, so a majority of American tax money agrees with me.

Prior to the advent of charter schools, the solution for dissatisfied parents would be to send their child to a private school. Inconveniently, those parents were still paying for a public school they weren’t utilizing. That’s not fair, and it’s certainly not fair to the lower and middle classes who can’t budget for a private education. Charter schools seemed to solve this dilemma when they appeared in the early 1990s.

Eventually, the private sector realized they could make a business out of this. After all, our taxes pay school districts to manage our conventional public school infrastructure, and pays for everything from teacher/principal/superintendent salaries to dozens of school houses to bus maintenance. Some smart ed reformers decided they could manage multiple schools better than a school district could, and the management organization was born.

To this end, Oliver dug into Ohio.

Now, we all know Ohio’s story. Their authorization process was laughably simple, and corrupt EMOs like White Hat Management ran amok and opened a bunch of schools under very little supervision and to poor results. It was a black eye on the movement, and Oliver’s resurrection of it was a sign that it’ll never go away.

Again, I’m fine using Ohio as a case study as long as it helps create a better system. However, for every White Hat Management, there’s a KIPP. For every Richard Allen Schools there is a Carpe Diem. For every Imagine, Inc. there is a Charter Schools USA or National Heritage. Of course, this doesn’t align with John Oliver’s narrative, so his audience and viewers are unaware of the private-management success stories out there.

The only point Oliver made that I somewhat agreed with was regarding online education. The number of learning days lost by online students is alarming. To be frank, I’ve never been able to get my head around K-12 web ed. I do support blended e-learning like that espoused by organizations like Green Dot and Carpe Diem. In fact, charter schools get a lot of the credit for tech advances in the ed sector, but if 100% web-based education is the future, it’s not the near future.

There’s no substitute for hands-on, face-to-face collaboration with a teacher in a physical classroom. I may sound old fashioned, but I really do think a brick and mortar learning environment is crucial for a child’s social development. Who cares what my kid’s grades are if he can’t communicate effectively with his peers or authority figures?

But before I could empathize with Oliver on this point, he went back into “more regulation” and showed a video of a former charter school teacher saying that there should be stricter filters on who can open charters.

Well, there already are filters. It’s called the application process, and it seems to me that the application process is Oliver’s only real gripe with charter schools. All the examples he gave – parties being thrown at schools after hours, schools shutting down mid-year, school funds going toward dubious expenses, etc. – had nothing to do with the parents (customers) or classrooms (production lines).

He’s essentially just criticizing authorizers (regulators) in a few specific states for not being able to predict the future, which isn’t fair to authorizers, either. I’m sure some of my readers can relate to how difficult it is to work with authorizers sometimes, i.e. most authorizers simply do not want to approve charters. Have you been to a NACSA conference lately?

Established authorizers have a system. If the applicant doesn’t have an effective curricular plan, the charter won’t be approved. If the applicant doesn’t have a viable and realistic budget, the charter won’t be approved. For a number of countless other reasons, the charter won’t be approved. Believe me, I’ve seen good charters get denied for the most fickle things.

And yet, the charters used in Oliver’s rant were approved, because the otherwise well-articulated charter applications had been submitted by people capable of the same greed, corruption, and stupidity as our elected school boards. Go figure.

I guess what I’m most frustrated about is that, at the end of his segment, Oliver didn’t clarify that there are thousands of charter schools out there serving their communities to the fullest. Even though he didn’t directly attack charter schools in principal (he even said he wouldn’t), by focusing on select failures in the movement he waged a proxy war on ed reform.

Why didn’t he talk more about the CREDO studies that he glossed over near the beginning of the program? He merely slammed charters for 18 minutes and signed off. I’ll never understand how a group of people calling themselves “progressives” can be so resistant to innovation, or so eager to judge a book by its worst paragraph.

Oh well.

Sorry about the Finebaum comment, John. That was below the belt, but at least I didn’t compare you to Danny Kanell.

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