Fried chicken, watermelon, and hipster comedy about charter schools

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 95% untouched.

Nelson Smith writing for The Seventy Four called Oliver’s writing team out for putting the spotlight on a “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 them.

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 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 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 substantially raises student achievement in Philadelphia, Urban Prep which is celebrated annuallyin 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.

Going on a limb here, I might guess most of Oliver’s viewers are more familiar with the Graduate Record Examinations and foodie circuits than the dry research studies and counter-studies proving and disproving the success or failure of charter schools. That makes them perfect highly stylized infotainment that makes smart people dumber.

It’s 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 as an exclusionary tool (the ultimate in 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 are still allowed to paddle students.

These practices are systemic in traditional school systems, there is an effort to keep the focus on the shortcomings of charter schools. For now, public support of charters remains strong, 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 feed 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 hipsters that find John Oliver funny (email me).

Of course, I won’t eat it with you publicly. Stereotypes are bad news.