The last time John Oliver got on the wrong side of the education reform community, the response was loud and clear. It’s no surprise, then, that after Oliver went on an eighteen-minute rant about management malfeasance in a small number of charter schools on Sunday night, the firing squad returned. Oliver’s piece touched a nerve, because he singled out the worst actors in charter schools in order to make a point about the entire system, while pointing out that mismanagement in charter schooling is enabled by uneven oversight. Proponents of charter schools have made the same argument as Oliver’s when discussing traditional schools, whose languishing is facilitated by the complicity of management and labor, for decades. The singling out of bad actors to make a point about an entire sector is a weak argument no matter who deploys it.
While professional advocates rushed to defend charters, the strongest reactions against Oliver’s rant are from parents who have chosen quality charter schools for their own kids. While Oliver stopped short of challenging the existence of charter schooling, he kept a quirky drawing of the words “Charter Schools” over his shoulder while relaying horror stories, undermining his intentions. In the meantime, vulnerable families have chosen to send their kids to high-performing charters, as a safety valve from traditional schools, whose lack of quality is the only reason that charters exist in the first place. Those families will see their options even further constrained if policymakers paint charter schooling with too broad a brush. Oliver’s comedic activist niche is to plead for government intervention whenever the free market goes astray. This is a good impulse, but in critiquing chartering he’s singling out 5% of all public schools in the United States. Those schools exist because the other 95%, which already are run by governments, don’t serve poor children, or children of color, well. Government should play a strong role in regulating the quality of schooling choices, but it’s a lot easier to critique those choices when your wealth gives you lots of them.
The reactions to Oliver’s piece reveal the growing pains of public charter schooling. Whereas charters represented a smattering of all schools just twenty years ago, their explosive growth, which threatens existing schooling interests, amplifies their mistakes and makes their weak performers more vulnerable to critique. That critique can include both helpful feedback from critical friends, and takedowns from professional opposition and haters. The trick is in distinguishing those things, and it is unclear which of the two Oliver represents. Either way, the bar is higher for public charter performance than it was in the 1990s, when the first charter laws were passed. The rapid expansion of charter schooling coincided with the Obama administration’s vast investments in other education reforms, meaning that, whereas it was easy to play the little guy a generation ago, now that charter backers include the president of the United States, both major political parties, and some of the country’s largest institutional philanthropies, the bar for quality has risen concomitantly with the public profile and size of the sector.
Fortunately, the idea of raising the bar for performance is congruent with the theoretical purpose of charters: to create better schooling through more rigorous innovation, reinvention, and accountability. If charters proliferate based on the idea that competition alone will lead to better schooling, John Oliver’s critique of the market gone astray is valid; the states with the most permissive regulatory environments – Ohio, Michigan, Nevada, and Arizona – have the worst schools, which is not coincidental. If, on the other hand, charter growth in the next generation takes place amidst strong performance management; a smart balancing of supply and demand; and a regulatory environment that encourages quality and entrepreneurship in equal doses, then charters will fulfill their promise.
Without an unflinching emphasis on cultivating great outcomes, charter apologists will be stuck defending their schools on the basis that they “suck less,” in the immortal words of long-time advocate Matt Candler. “Sucking less” is hardly an inspiring rallying cry for the next generation of public sector leaders. John Oliver missed the bigger picture when he picked on 5% of public schools, while ignoring the other 95%, but that’s his problem, because his job is making jokes. Charter activists should pick fights with comedians at their own risk, not just because comics and wonks play by different sets of rules, but because wonks have more important work to do: making schools great. When your 5% is airtight, you won’t have to worry about pesky things like half-informed rants by late-night comedians.