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Why Does John Oliver Want To Trap Poor Kids In Failing Schools?


John Oliver recently delivered a rant against public charter schools that makes it painfully obvious he enjoyed a tony private education and doesn’t know a thing about the schools attended by 90 percent of American students. That didn’t stop him from ignorantly opining, lacing his rant with jokes to sweeten the poison.

Oliver’s show essentially repeated debunked union talking points that parents across the political spectrum know are lies that have consigned millions of kids to a piss-poor education. And that piss-poor education is precisely the reason public charters are a thing. Charters, as Oliver notes, are public schools that private organizations can apply to manage, pursuant to state law. These organizations can include nonprofits like United Way, or they can be coalitions of concerned parents who organize themselves into a small company or nonprofit.

Early in the show, Oliver laid out the union party line: Charters “overstate their successes, siphon off talented students, and divert precious resources within a school district.” The main question isn’t so much about whether all these things are true (they are and are not to varying degrees) but whether charters instigate a better education ecosystem than the alternative.

Make no mistake: I have some criticisms of charter schools, too. Yet there are 50 million American kids going to school every day, and they have to go somewhere. We don’t get to argue about unicorn fantasy worlds, but about comparative benefits and downsides in a world where all schools will always be imperfect. My conclusion is that, even though charters cannibalize faith-based education in states that do not offer school vouchers (a social and market negative), overall they meet many children’s most desperate needs in ways that local public schools don’t and typically haven’t for an entire generation. So I generally support charters.

I don’t know how any morally responsible person can look a child in the face and tell him or her, “You must go back to your violent traditional public school where only 1 in 5 of your peers will graduate with any hope of sustainable employment, because I’m just not sure about this ‘private individuals running schools’ thing.” A child in a charter school is a sign of both desperation and hope, because a parent has to actively pull his child from his default public school to enroll in a charter. If that child is there, there’s a reason. We should not discount it, especially not with empty-headed jokes.

Signs John Oliver Knows Nothing About Public Schools

Let’s review some things that made me realize Oliver has probably never set foot in an American public school, or at least hasn’t followed basic news coverage about them ever. He showed footage of rapper Pitbull speaking at his SLAM Academy (Sports Leadership and Management to you, Oliver—whassamatter, Oliver, don’t like school names kids might find attractive? Prefer “Anthony Kennedy Memorial High” or “Whispering Pines Elementary of Vague Imagery”?) some years ago, and mentioning that Bill Cosby had spoken there once.

Oliver then went into a paroxysm of insinuation about Cosby being outed as a sexual predator yet being allowed into a charter school. Someone tell Oliver that in 2006 Chicago Public Schools hosted Cosby, and it’s totally a traditional public school district and in fact the nation’s fourth-largest! Cosby also spoke to a giant audience of people at a Tulsa public high school field house in 2012! That, like, totally invalidates their education authority, right?

This is guilt by association, not argument. And don’t tell me humor is incapable of that. The best humor makes us laugh by revealing truth in a startling way, not by smearing people for once mentioning the name of a man later turned into a pariah for his bad sexual choices.

Oliver complains about some charter school operators committing fraud and embezzlement. Apparently he’s too clueless to know this is completely typical among people who have access to large piles of other people’s money. That’s why we have, you know, auditors.

Traditional public school administrators also commit fraud all the time. About three minutes of googling yields plenty of examples: Wake County public schools in North Carolina lost $1.5 million in forfeited bonds due to a scheme between several government employees. The federal government says 12 public-school principals in Detroit scammed $2.3 million from schools in exchange for contractor kickbacks. They say one such principal used some of the money on casino-hopping and a cruise.

A San Francisco-area superintendent recently pleaded guilty to embezzling $15 million from taxpayers. A a three-year investigation of that government employee-orchestrated scheme found six public-school employees “diverted government grants meant for after-school and health programs into hidden slush-fund accounts at three private nonprofits that hold contracts with the district.” Oliver complained that a charter school juiced attendance numbers to get more state money. Thankfully, that’s something that would never happen in a traditional public school. Whoops. Apparently it’s too much to ask of Oliver to spend a couple minutes on Google before going on camera.

Please, John Oliver: Visit a Public School Some Time

Oliver also complains that charters, unlike traditional schools, sometimes close. He highlighted one that closed six weeks after school started and 14 that didn’t finish their first school year in Florida: “When schools close that fast, it’s shocking,” he says. Actually, what’s shocking is when they never close despite years of sub-standard graduation rates and above-average illiteracy rates bought with millions of dollars of other people’s money.

School closure has been found to be one of the very few effective remedies for a failing school. It is also a major reason charter schools are dramatically improving over time and compared to non-charter public schools. Most of the nation’s inner-city schools have been failing huge numbers of their students since the 1960s. How many of them have been closed? Nearly none.

Closing terrible schools is an excellent thing in the long run. We don’t need less of it; we need more of it. Where do the kids go when this happens mid-year (an extremely rare occurrence)? Well, has Oliver ever heard of this little thing called “transferring”? People do it all the time. And they don’t die of it, either.

Among his more substantive complaints, Oliver notes that some charter school applications use some identical language. He calls it plagiarism. Can we also apply that complaint to Common Core, the guiding principle of which is that every single school in the country follows the precisely same 640-page document?

School Choice Is a Culture Reform

He complains that “charter schools are uneven in quality.” Um, this is actually a big complaint about traditional public schools, too. Rich kids get good ones, poor kids get bad ones. There are lots of reasons for this, but one is that rich families choose schools through  a) private school tuition, like Oliver’s parents did or b) high property tax rates that underwrite their tony public schools. (Although let’s be clear here, because the nation’s worst public schools actually tend to spend like pricey private schools. DC per-pupil spending is $25,038, New York City’s is $20,331, Detroit’s is $13,825, and Chicago’s is $16,432 (plus $38,000 per student in unfunded liabilities), for example.) Poor people can’t buy their way into better schools. That’s kind of a function of being poor people. So they get trapped in the bad ones.

Money by itself doesn’t improve education quality, but giving individuals control over their own money sure does. School choice, of which charters are a part, gives poor families more leverage to negotiate their children’s attendance with schools. It confers to poor people some of the power rich families have, so they can negotiate more of what they want out of whatever schools they choose to attend.

This is an economic reform that is also culture-transforming. By empowering poor parents to act like rich parents, and with public money ostensibly dedicated to their kids, we return responsibility to parents along with power. A major reason inner-city schools perform so poorly despite their high spending is that teachers and schools simply cannot make up for terrible parenting and relationship chaos.

The culture of dependency—which the sudden attention to our white working class shows is not just an inner-city black or brown people problem—acts like someone else is responsible for the kids. Feeding the kids is the school’s job. Disciplining the kids is the school’s job. Teaching the kids is the school’s job. School choice tells parents, “No, this is your job. You have agency. You not only have the power to choose where your child is educated, you have the responsibility.” This makes families a willing partner in a child’s education rather than a coerced dependent on a school system they didn’t choose and can’t change.

John Oliver and his parents were willing to trust his education and his career to the free market (he’s employed by a private company, after all), but for some reason, Oliver is scared stiff of everyone else doing the same. Is he just stupid, or cruel?