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John Oliver is Right About (some) Charter Schools

Written by Doug Scott on Aug 25, 2016

If NBC had covered the two-plus weeks of the Olympic Games in the same sensationalized fashion that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight recently covered the complex topic of charter schools, we would have gotten 14 days of Ryan Lochte and just one day focused on the thousands of athletes from around the world defying the odds and excelling in their fields.  The issue isn’t that Oliver doesn’t make a lot of good points; it’s that the full story on charters – unlike British cuisine – isn’t all bad. 

Oliver’s piece has shock value – using some of the most sensational stories of failed charters and corrupt leaders.  In less than 48 hours, it’s been viewed more than 3 million times on YouTube and picked up by major media outlets like the Washington Post, Fortune, Newsweek, and TIME.  We should use this spotlight as an opportunity to provoke a conversation, not finish one.

  • It’s true that, in general, charters don’t do much better – and certainly not consistently better – than traditional public schools.  But when has governance model been a selection criteria for where to send a child or which school to support?  The better questions to ask are “What school will best serve my child?  What schools will best serve all children?”  The answers can be found in both high-performing traditional public schools and high-performing charter schools.  Comparing the averages of traditional public schools and charters is a mistake because we should be examining the best and striving to duplicate them.  The U.S. didn’t send our “average” athletes to Rio because no one wants to see a bunch of out-of-shape, 5’10” guys get the ball spiked in their face in beach volleyball.

  • High-performing charters are making a measurable difference for kids who need it most.  Oliver too briefly skimmed over the fact that many charters are working. He quickly highlighted KIPP, which along with other grantees of A Better Chicago such as Intrinsic, LEARN, and the Noble Network of Charter Schools are doing inspiring work.  These organizations are getting students to and through college at rates well above the national average for low-income students. 

  • Sound bites rarely serve these conversations well.  Oliver featured John Kasich’s “pizza shop” analogy.  I think we can all agree – and probably Kasich concurs – that analogy fails, and rightly so.  The “free market” is not akin to the complexities of education.  Students are not “products,” parents are not “customers” and the forces that work to support competition in the private sector – transparency of information, thoughtful regulation, informed choice, and the ability to easily exit and enter – are often not present.  But because you shouldn’t run a school like a pizza shop doesn’t mean the only answer is a world without choice and competition.  If you disagree, feel free to FedEx, UPS, DHL, or U.S. Mail your thoughts to me at A Better Chicago.  States and districts that are taking the performance of all schools seriously are working hard to provide oversight, regulation, and transparency.  For example, CPS’s School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP) provides transparent and insightful data on every school – district and charter – so that students, parents, communities, funders, and others can make informed decisions. 

  • State policy matters.  The states that have struggled with “Wild West” charter school performance are typically those that expected “the market to work” like it does for pizza shops instead of realizing that the education ecosystem has to be thoughtfully and carefully developed to provide high-quality choices.  Oliver spends much of the segment talking about Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio — states whose charter policies have been ineffective in the past and recently improved in light of their challenges, as cited in the 2016 ratings of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA).  Illinois is ranked in the middle of the pack, and the importance of strong oversight and accountability will remain essential.  Some of the improvements NACSA recommends for Illinois include making the use of performance frameworks and replication incentives a matter of law (things CPS already requires), and instituting a “strong renewal standard that empowers authorizers to close schools that fail to achieve the performance goals in the charter contract.”

On Monday in Chicago, close to 4,000 students started their first day of ninth grade at one of Noble’s 17 high schools, and I had the privilege of meeting some of them.  Facing steep odds – both in life and in the lottery – these students are now more than twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their peers in the city.  Say what you will about the theory, but it is difficult to argue that the students of Chicago would be better served without Noble and other high-performing charters. 

I’m still a fan of John Oliver. His humor and insight bring light to a host of topics that are important and oft overlooked.  I’m glad that he brought focus to the topic of charter schools.  What his piece doesn’t address is that improving education is hard.  Funding, supporting teachers, developing leaders, engaging families, and working with communities all require deep investment and commitment.  We need to move forward swiftly where we see success, whether that be in traditional public schools or in charter schools.  The children of Chicago cannot afford for philosophical battles, or cheeky TV commentary, to get in their way.

Doug (@DougScottEdu) is the president of A Better Chicago.

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