Glib, Clever, & Wrong: John Oliver’s Take on Charter Schools

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took aim at charter schools, which are publicly funded K-12 schools that are given more autonomy than conventional residential-assignment public schools to set their own curricula, make hiring decisions, and focus on particular sorts of instruction. In exchange for greater freedom, charters get significantly less per-pupil funding than traditional schools (about 30 percent or $3,000 less, according to one study) and typically no funds for buildings and other physical plant. Most importantly, unlike traditional schools, charters must voluntarily attract students; no one is assigned to them and they only keep their doors open if they keep students enrolled in them.

Charters have received praise from both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and they represent the most popular type of K-12 education reform over the past quarter-century. Created in Minnesota in the early 1990s, there are now about 6,700 charters in 42 states and the District of Columbia. They educate about 3 million students out of the more than 55 million kids enrolled in public and private K-12 education and in some large urban school districts (such as New Orleans and Detroit), they educate a majority or students.

Oliver’s segment (watch below) was almost unrelieved in its criticism of charters. Echoing the talking points of major teachers unions and liberal interest group such as People for the American Way and the NAACP, the HBO host attacked charters for being unaccountable to local and state authorities (this is not true, as all state charter laws have various types of oversight rules built into them), “draining” resources from traditional public schools (which presumes tax dollars for education belong to existing power structures), and skimming students (in fact, charters teach a higher percentage of racial and ethnic minorities than traditional public schools; they also serve a higher percentage of economically disadvanataged kids). Which is not to say that Oliver is all wrong in his analysis. For instance, he ran through a series of charters that were criminally mismanaged and deserved to be shut down (even as he glossed over the fact that failing charters, unlike failing traditional schools, are more likely to be closed). And he’s right to argue that, on average, charters perform about the same as regular public schools.

However, such comparisons tell us very little about whether charters do help those at-risk students better than traditional schools. On this score, there is very little doubt that charters do more with less money and fewer resources. University of Arkansas education researcher Jay Greene summarizes the data on “randomized control trials” (RCTs), which compare students who enrolled in charters and other who wanted to but were not able to due to limited slots. Because most charters use lotteries to enroll students, it’s possible to match the effect of attending a charter versus a traditional school. As Greene puts it:

Students in urban areas do significantly better in school if they attend a charter schools than if they attend a traditional public school. These academic benefits of urban charter schools are quite large. In Boston, a team of researchers from MIT, Harvard, Duke, and the University of Michigan, conducted a RCT and found: “The charter school effects reported here are therefore large enough to reduce the black-white reading gap in middle school by two-thirds.”
A RCT of charter schools in New York City by a Stanford researcher found an even larger effect: “On average, a student who attended a charter school for all of grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the ‘Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap’ in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English.”
The same Stanford researcher conducted an RCT of charter schools in Chicago and found: “students in charter schools outperformed a comparable group of lotteried-out students who remained in regular Chicago public schools by 5 to 6 percentile points in math and about 5 percentile points in reading…. To put the gains in perspective, it may help to know that 5 to 6 percentile points is just under half of the gap between the average disadvantaged, minority student in Chicago public schools and the average middle-income, nonminority student in a suburban district.”
And the last RCT was a national study conducted by researchers at Mathematica for the US Department of Education. It found significant gains for disadvantaged students in charter schools but the opposite for wealthy suburban students in charter schools. They could not determine why the benefits of charters were found only in urban, disadvantaged settings, but their findings are consistent with the three other RCTs that found significant achievement gains for charter students in Boston, Chicago, and New York City.

More here.

These are not small achievements and they received no mention in Oliver’s excoriaton of charters, which focused on a series of terribly managed schools. More power to him on that score: It’s always worth calling attention to wasteful expenditures of tax dollars. However, it’s not particularly helpful to do so while simply ignoring the overwhelmingly superior results of charters for the most at-risk students they serve, especially if doing so simply blunts criticism of traditional public schools that have seen real per-pupil spending soar without any improvement in student outcomes.

Indeed, charters are best understood as one way of introducing choice into a system that is predicated upon denying choice from its participants. A child’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine her opportunities, runs a popular slogan in school choice circles. Yet that’s exactly what traditional residential-assignment schools do. Wealthier Americans exercise school choice by deciding to live in this or that neighbhorhood or town, or by sending their kids to private schools. Poorer Americans have no such options but are instead stuck with schools that routinely underperform.

Toward the end of the Oliver segment, he takes Gov. John Kasich of Ohio to task for arguing that charter schools also introduce to education the same sort of competition that we all understand raises the average level of other goods and services. Kasich (who by the way is hardly a staunch supporter of charters or school choice) clumsily walks through an example of a town with one “pizza shop” that would up its offerings if a second “pizza shop” opened up. Oliver mocks Kasich for calling pizzerias “shops” and ultimately launches into a bit about how education is not simply beholden to normal laws of supply and demand.

This is all clever, glib, and blessedly uninformed by research that shows increasing publicly funded choices for parents increases outcomes for students across the board. Holy hell, it turns out that education, a $620 billion industry, actually does respond to competitive pressures, just like most other activities.

It’s precisely that lack of seriousness in Oliver that is so off-putting. In the name of standing up for taxpayers and students, Oliver does a cliched piss-take on one of the few reforms that has actually helped poor kids in school districts from Los Angeles to New York.

Watch Oliver’s bit here: