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The Citizen

John Oliver Oversimplifies the Charter School Debate

By Matt Bubley, MPA 2018

What Last Week Tonight gets wrong – and right – about charters.


The long segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has a rare reputation in TV journalism. It manages to treat the issues it takes up with a combination of wit, insight, and – usually – depth. That’s why last month’s segment on charter schools was disappointing.

I spent six years working at a high-performing charter school. It’s not perfect, but its students, almost all of whom are low-income and black or Latinx, achieve extraordinary results. Parent satisfaction is off the charts.
Oliver’s piece levels lots of valid criticisms at charters. In more than 18 minutes, however, it manages to tell only a fraction of the story. It focuses exclusively on bad charters and overlooks high-performing ones like ours. It leaves out traditional district schools altogether.

Oliver points out that the 6,000 US charter schools in the aggregate perform just marginally better than their district peers. He’s right. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) indeed found that the median charter school adds a barely perceptible learning “premium” per student, compared to its district peers.

But CREDO also found huge variation among charter schools. Charters are overrepresented among the worst-performing public schools overall. They’re also overrepresented among the best. That makes sense given that charter operators have more autonomy to define their approaches.

Charter success is not distributed randomly. Oliver cites another of CREDO’s findings: “Charter quality is uneven across states.” He highlights examples of states – Florida, Ohio, and others – where charters have closed because of financial mismanagement or where for-profit proxy operators have run academic results into the ground. Again, his criticism is right on.

He ignores, however, states where charters perform well. In six states and DC, CREDO found that a typical charter school student learns as much as if she’d had an extra month of instruction in both reading and math.
Charter effects are even more substantial for low-income students, kids of color, English learners (ELs), and city students. Boston’s charters create the staggering equivalent of an additional year’s worth of learning per year in both reading and math.

Oliver calls out weak oversight in the states he discusses. He’s right to do so. But New Jersey, Tennessee, Louisiana, and other states with high-performing charters run far more rigorous authorizing regimes. When Massachusetts last raised its charter cap in 2010, Match Education, where I then worked, petitioned to open its first elementary school. Charters were permitted to apply for the newly available seats only if they had a proven track record of operating successful schools. Even among those qualified applicants, competition was intense. Match, founded by Mike Goldstein (MPP ’98), had operated a high-performing high school for a decade. We presented a detailed application, including targeted learning outcomes, a small-group instruction model built on our other schools’ successes, and financials proving we’d be solvent for years to come.

Our charter was nonetheless initially denied: We had not provided sufficient evidence that we’d be able to serve English learners (ELs). Only once we partnered with another network that had successfully served a majority EL population did the board approve our application. We opened Match Community Day the following year. In the school’s first few years the authorizers visited for several days a year. The guidance they provided improved our early-elementary math program and helped us grow into a genuinely trauma-sensitive school. Now beginning its sixth year, it is among the most successful elementary schools in Boston. We owe its success in part to sound management and incredible teachers, but also in no small measure to the state’s regulators.

Oliver was right when he said that by the time bad charters are closed, “futures may have been ruined.” His point begs to be extended beyond the charter sector, however, which serves only roughly 5% of US K-12 students. Fewer than one in ten low-income kids of color graduate from college. The United States ranked 36th in math among countries participating in last year’s PISA test. Futures have certainly been ruined – and for generations. Reducing the debate to “charters vs. districts” does nothing to change the sorry status quo.

Our schools are the places where intergenerational disadvantage gets reproduced – or, in certain special cases, disrupted. We should focus on fixing or replacing the schools of all stripes that fail our kids. Just as importantly, we should work to learn what we can from those that excel.