Why Does Abbott Elementary Insist on Disparaging Charter Schools?

And why do reporters happily comply?

100 percent of students at Capitol Prep Charter Schools, Bridgeport, CT, go on to college.

Last week’s Abbott Elementary was at least the second time that the actors playing Philadelphia public school teachers took a popular TV show and turned it into a propaganda machine for anti-charter forces who exist to protect their power, and not kids.

Those anti-charter forces on Twitter were cheering on the show’s dialogue which went like this:

“Are we positive we don’t want to be a charter school?

“They don’t even require all their teachers be certified.

“Yet they take our funding.

“Not to mention, the private money from the wealthy donors with ulterior motives.”

So I engaged: “It’s pathetic when fewer than 20% of Philadelphia students can’t even read, write or spell at grade level, that there’s a show on television that has the nerve to criticize the schools that succeed, and the people that help them. This has TEACHERS UNION written all over it.”

Besides getting insanely incorrect and bizarre responses, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s political reporter Chris Brennan reached out for a comment.

“Good afternoon.

“I saw a tweet you posted Saturday about an episode of the television comedy Abbott Elementary that aired last week.

“The episode was critical of charter schools. You were responding to another tweet that suggested a line of dialogue about ‘wealthy donors with ulterior motives’ was an anonymous reference to Jeff Yass.

“Did you watch the episode? Did you think it was referring to Yass?

“I’m preparing a short item about this that will post online today and be part of our Friday political column, known as Clout.

“Please let me know if you would like to comment. I can be reached at 215–854 5973. Thanks.”

Not sure if he was misinterpreting my tweet and intent, I wrote back:

“Hi, Chris. Thanks for writing. If you scroll down the thread, you’ll see several others being called out for support of charters. This reply to my tweet, for example:

“‘Funny b/c I didn’t think of Yass. I thought of Mike Rubin and meek’s clown of an organization REFORM giving millions to support charter schools in Philly. Proof of good writing that the joke holds different meaning for folks.’

“This isn’t the first time that Abbott Elementary took a hollow, evidence-lacking shot at charter schools. In November, they had a show portraying an African-American man starting a group of charter schools as ‘the villain.’ The episode is called ‘The Villain Appears.’

“This most recent particular episode, which I did not watch nor do I intend to but read part of the transcript, is about as truthful as Fox’s reporting on the 2020 election. First, it says that charter school teachers don’t have to be certified. Not true. Certification in PA is either by way of an ED Degree and corresponding passage of a few very low level (Praxis) tests OR by allowing a qualified individual by definition of expertise to become a teacher, with additional testing, or exemptions justified by their expertise which all public schools, including charters, may avail themselves of. It’s called alternative certification or alternative routes, and charters utilize this tool well, hiring people who are highly qualified to teach specific subjects, which is why their scores, graduation rates, and retention are dramatically higher than district students, comparing like students. PA Law requires that ‘75% of professional staff in charters must hold appropriate state certification.’

“Research has found that certification is no proxy for quality, however, so the state in its wisdom has made sure by adopting alternative certification policies that every school in the Commonwealth is eligible to hire talented people who can demonstrate effectiveness even if they are not traditionally certified. That Philadelphia Public Schools for the most part choose not to do so, because the unions pressure them not to and protect those who are not as high quality as others is one reason that their students perform so poorly. Even before Covid, only THIRTEEN PERCENT of Black Students grade eight were proficient in reading. Wouldn’t you want someone else to start a school to fix that, Chris?

“Second, the statement that ‘they take our money’ is just false. Students in charters are followed by the very same state and local funding that would otherwise go to their assigned school. When they leave, their money leaves. The money doesn’t belong to the system but to the education of the student.

“That thousands of highly successful people inside PA and out have contributed to the creation and expansion of charter schools — because they don’t get facilities funds, or anywhere near the $26,000 per student that Philly gets (They receive on average $10,000 less) is a wonderful charitable endeavor, no different that Comcast supporting after school programs, or Catholic schools for that matter.

“Most philanthropists or just plain citizens who support charter school and other transformation efforts designed to give kids the education they deserve also support innovative education efforts. Among the 64 Quarterfinalists for the Yass Prize this year, for example, [from Philadelphia] Coded by Kids received $200,000 to support its work with all students. Father Judge High School was a semifinalist, receiving $200,000 for its work building new apprenticeship models. And for more than 10 years, the Philadelphia School Partnership, now known as Elevate 215 run by Stacy Holland, distributed funds to district, charter and private schools in a well-known collaboration that Janine Yass helped to found and support.

“So, yes the gratuitous slap against people with wealth who give to education no matter where kids are, to ensure they succeed and educate students, regardless of sector, is misinformed, ignorant and truly pathetic.

“That’s what my tweet was about. Thanks for asking. If you plan to edit this at all, please inform me before doing so. Thank you — Jeanne.”

But Chris said he wouldn’t be able to use it all:

“Thanks for getting back to me. I don’t have room for all of this but will use what I can that is relevant to the Twitter discussion about Jeff Yass.”

Well that and bad data apparently, because the next morning this piece appeared:

“Abbott Elementary, the ABC comedy about a fictional Philadelphia public school, took what sounded like a shot at Pennsylvania’s richest man in last week’s episode while knocking charter school backers.

“At least one Jeff Yass fan is not laughing.

““They take our funding, not to mention the private money from wealthy donors with ulterior motives,” said Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays teacher Barbara Howard, (and is married to State Sen. Vincent Hughes.)

“Yass, a Main Line billionaire investor, has spent millions to support charter schools and political action committees that push for the election of candidates who share his goals.

“Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform and director of The Yass Foundation for Education, was not amused when folks on Twitter linked that line to Yass. (And Chris proceeds to quote my tweet).

Chris goes on to report:

“Actually, 36% of the city’s students scored proficient or advanced on the state standardized English language arts exam in the latest results available. That’s not great. But it’s certainly not ‘fewer than 20%.’

“Allen, in an email to Clout, called the line a ‘gratuitous slap against people with wealth” and complained that this was not the first ‘hollow, evidence-lacking shot at charter schools.’

“She also said she has not watched the episode and does not plan to.”

His inference that I was simply defending Mr. Yass and his numbers were inaccurate. We — the research team at the Center for Education Reform and I — pulled out all the numbers, and with them I responded, again.

“Hi Chris,

“Regarding this morning’s coverage I am writing to correct the data you used and the inference.

“First, in this note you will learn why the average reading proficiency score of students attending traditional Philadelphia public schools is below 20 percent and I’m asking that you correct what you stated online and in print to validate the data I originally provided and that you quoted.

“Second, I believe you misrepresented my Twitter engagement entirely. My point was about the students of Philadelphia and their access, or lack thereof, to a high quality education option, not whether I am a fan of people like the Yasses who spend money to support higher quality options. So in addition to correcting the numbers, I’m asking that you remove this line from your article: ‘was not amused when folks on Twitter linked that line to Yassand replace it with ‘was not amused when folks on Twitter took shots at charter schools.

“About the numbers: Let me start with the Inquirer’s own work. On October 24th, the Inquirer published this piece, verifying that, on the Nation’s Report Card, Philly public schools are among the lowest of all urban districts in the country.

“The article goes on further to quote a city official saying: ‘As measured by state standardized tests, just 36 percent of district students meet reading standards, and 22 percent hit the mark in math.’

“But the 36 percent is not related to the number I provided. That number number is not a reflection of critical grade levels, which is the accepted way education is measured. Instead it is an average of proficiency, across all schools together, those that serve less advantaged, the more affluent and the selective schools, which almost no one uses. It would be like taking my four children, all who had wildly different test scores in 8th grade, and saying that the Allen children are X percent proficient. That’s why one never accepts an aggregated number to tell the full story of student achievement. It does a disservice to the students, the teacher and the cause for educational excellence we probably both agree is critical.

“If you look at Philly’s eighth grade proficiency results in Reading/English Language Arts, the district as a whole is actually 40% proficient on the state’s PSSA scores, whereas the Nation’s Report Card, considered the gold standard and quoted by your paper and scores of others, is 39 percent proficient. Pretty close, though they are different evaluations.

“But disaggregated by race, the state proficiency score for African American students throughout the District is 22.59 percent proficient whereas the NAEP scores for the same period is 13 percent. Again, NAEP is where we want our kids, not state scores which are also weighted against a number of factors.

But by school, the numbers are even more startling. Tilden 8th grade students are 14 percent proficient in reading across the board. Among African-American students alone? The number drops to 9.8 percent.

“John Barry’s Accelerated 8th grade score is 4 percent. William Bryant school? Fourteen percent.

“And Penn-Alexander, run by and serving predominantly University of Pennsylvania’s employee’s students has a 46 percent proficiency score, while Newlin, also with more advantages on average than typical Philly schools, is 37 percent reading proficient at the 8th grade level. These scores, mind you, are still abysmal if we are trying to educate a 21st century of students who can do what you do — write, read, talk with exceptional talent. But those higher scores are the reason that, averaged out, the District’s scores for 8th grade look higher when in fact, a majority of 8th graders who are just a grade away from matriculating to High School where career and college success is cemented, are less than 20 percent proficient in reading.

“The parents who understand the data, at all income levels, send their students to the 83 charter schools in the city which are serving more than 33 percent of students, which Abbott Elementary frequently attacks in its less than accurate storyline. That is the issue I was addressing with my tweet. As I said, when a city has a majority of students who score less than 20 percent proficient in reading, slamming the very schools that do the real work is worse than ignorant; it’s unjust. And facts matter, Chris. They are not easy to parse, but studying the data on state proficiency rates for each school would be a worthy expenditure of time before trying to dismiss a highly trained education researcher’s data.

“So, Chris, because your numbers don’t tell the whole story, and because my tweet was about content and not who supports what, I’m requesting that, in addition to correcting your data to reflect that indeed “in 8th grade while the average proficiency score is 39%, African-American students score are only 22% proficient and most schools are actually below 20%” that you remove this line from your article “was not amused when folks on Twitter linked that line to Yass” and replace it with “was not amused when folks on Twitter took shots at charter schools.

“I look forward to those corrections. Please confirm. Thanks so much.”

I’m still waiting for a response and trust in the integrity of the reporter, and the process.

However, I’m wondering if the leading paper in the City of Brotherly Love will ever acknowledge that the lead actress on the show sent her kids to Pilgrim, one of the most exclusive private schools in Los Angeles. Or that the creator, lead writer, and co-producer of the show is Quinta Brunson, who hails from West Philly and who attended charter schools her entire education.

Suffer the children who don’t have luxurious private options or whose lifesaving public charter schools are the target of millionaire actors, married to powerful state senators who are funded by the Philadelphia Teachers Union.

Now there’s a story, Chris!



Jeanne Allen | Author & Podcast Host | Ed Champion

I work to advance policies and practices that ensure children have access to 21st century education, and the programs and schools that best meet their needs.