In September 2015, John Oliver did a hilarious segment on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” skewering the country’s obsession with standardized testing. He’s done it again, this time with a back-to-school segment blasting some charter schools (see transcript below).
In his new segment broadcast Aug. 21, Oliver says that he is not going to address whether or not charters are a good idea, but takes a serious yet sadly funny look at charters that are terribly — and sometimes criminally — operated.
The overall message is that the charter school movement — backed by Democrats and Republicans alike, President Obama and former president George W. Bush — has been allowed to flourish over the last 25 years without anywhere near enough oversight and that ultimately, kids are getting hurt.
Oliver lets charter supporters talk for themselves in video clips interspersed throughout, such as when Ohio Gov. John Kasich talks about how he wants to run public schools like pizza shops. And then Oliver savages the notion that public education would improve if it were operated like a business in an unprecedented way on a popular television show.
We will improve the public schools if there’s a sense of competition. Just like a pizza shop in the town, if there’s only one and there’s not much pepperoni on it, you can call ‘til you’re blue in the face. But the best way to get more pepperoni on that pizza is to open up a second pizza shop, and that’s what’s going to improve our public schools.
Okay, okay, that doesn’t work on any level. First, no one has ever called it a pizza shop. Second, it’s a little hard to hear the man who just defunded Planned Parenthood talk about the importance of choice. Third, there’s such a thing as paying for extra pepperoni like a normal person. And finally the notion that the more pizza shops there are the better pizza becomes is effectively undercut by the two words: Papa John’s. But Ohio’s charters have had huge problems with lack of oversight. A review of one year’s state audits found charters misspent public money nearly four times more often than any other form of taxpayer-funded agency …
The problem with letting the free market decide when it comes to kids is that kids change faster than the market. And by the time it’s obvious the school is failing, futures may have been ruined.
Naturally, charter supporters were shaken by the segment — and some actually issued statements about it. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools issued a release Monday that tried to minimize the impact of Oliver’s message. It said:
“The August 21 episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver examined the critical importance of strong charter school authorizers and laws. The program began by spotlighting one of the thousands of high-performing charter schools that are opening doors of opportunity for students – especially those living in low-income communities. High-quality charter schools like these are the norm, giving families access to local, public, and effective educational options in communities where traditional district schools aren’t meeting the needs of students.
“Most of the program focused on charter schools in three states that were engaged in practices that were either questionable or unethical. These practices are unacceptable, but are not representative of charter schools nationwide. Furthermore, many of the examples featured are years-to-decades old, and fail to reflect the significant progress that the charter school movement has made in the areas of oversight and accountability.
“To be clear, anyone who is not in education for the betterment of students has no right to be in education. But these select examples should not tarnish the good work being done by dedicated charter school educators across 43 states and Washington, DC. At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, we are strong advocates for policies and laws that both hold charter schools accountable and allow great charter schools to open and flourish. We take seriously the issues raised by Last Week Tonight, and we will continue our work to strengthen charter school oversight in areas that are falling short.”
Here’s the transcript of nearly all of the segment. I have italicized the words that come from news show video clips Oliver used. You can watch the segment here.
It’s currently back-to-school season and for millions the school they’ll be attending will be a charter school, the things the politicians love to praise:
President Obama: I called for a doubling of our investment in our charter schools.
George W. Bush, when he was president: I’m a big believer in charter schools.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: I believe in public charter schools.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump: Charter schools work and they work very well.
Mitt Romney, former GOP presidential candidate: Charter schools are so successful that almost every politician can find something good to say about them.
Yes, charter schools unite both sides of the aisle more quickly than when a wedding DJ throws on ‘Hey Ya!’ ‘Oh, look at Nana dancing! We can never let her know what this song is about.’
Charters are basically public schools that are taxpayer funded but privately run. And now the first ones emerged 25 years ago as places to experiment with new educational approaches, and since then they’ve exploded. There are now over 6,700 charter schools educating almost 3 million students, and some have celebrity backers, like Puff Daddy, Andre Agassi and even Pitbull, who helped launch Miami’s SLAM Academy. He was a keynote speaker at a charter school conference in 2013 and his speech has not aged well for reasons that will become painfully clear:
Pitbull: They told me that Bill Cosby has spoken here before, which I think is amazing, someone that I really relate to. I also love Jell-O, you know.
Oliver: Yes, yes, that does look bad now, but to be fair it was not commonly known at the time that Jello was responsible for dozens of cases of sexual assault. Turns out Jell-O is a monster. I think I’m legally okay to say that. … And, look, when Pitbull has a charter school, it seems like it might be worth taking a look at them.
And first let me acknowledge this is a controversial area. Charter proponents will point to positive news stories like this one about the KIPP charter schools network.
Voiceover from TV segment: Most KIPP students are chosen by lottery regardless of prior academic record. Almost all meet federal poverty guidelines, and yet 82 percent go on to college.
George Ramirez, senior, Yale University: I think one thing that I learned that KIPP really well is that a lot of your effort doesn’t reap any success until way later in the future.
Oliver: Now honestly any philosophy that can get those kind of results might be worth considering. In the same way that if we found out they boosted our immunity, we would seriously consider eating koalas. But charter critics argue that charters overstate their successes, siphon off talented students, and divert precious resources within the school district.
Now for this piece — and I know this is going to make some people on both sides very angry — we’re going to set aside whether or not charter schools are a good idea in principle. Because whether they are or not, in 42 states and D.C. we’re doing them. So instead we’re going to look at how they operate in practice. One group found on average charters have a slight edge over traditional public schools in reading and about the same in math but acknowledged charter quality is uneven across the states and across schools. And that is putting it mildly. Because around the country there have been charter school so flawed they don’t make it through the school year.
2015 news segment: This charter school suddenly closed its doors in the middle of the day.
Different news segment voiceover: In Orange County, this charter school suddenly closed its doors without notice.
Different news segment voiceover: The local charter school is suddenly and unexpectedly closing its doors. Voice of mom: On our dining-room table my son left these two notes to us. One says, ‘Dear mom, is the school going out of bisnose?’
Oliver: Yes, yes, you are right. That kid spelled business ‘bisnose,’ which I’ll argue is a much better way to spell it. Now that that school was actually shut down just six weeks into the school year so to be honest, they probably should have been much better at bisnose. And charters in some states can have an alarming failure rate. Two years ago, a Florida paper found that since 2008, 119 charter schools have closed there, 14 of which had never even finished their first school year. So 14 schools in Florida were outlasted by NBC’s ‘Mysteries of Laura…’ The point is when schools close that fast it’s shocking, because you would assume someone would rigorously screen a school before it was allowed to open, making sure it was financially and academically sound. But that is not always the case. Take for example IVY academies, which shot down after just seven weeks due to a lack of, among other things, a school.
Voiceover from news segment: The schools are repeatedly kicked out of their buildings, shuttle students among multiple sites. … They also bus students on daily field trips because they didn’t have enough classrooms.
Oliver: Daily field trips? How’s that even possible? Surely by day 10 you’ve run out of ideas and are taking kids to Marshall’s to return a belt. ‘Pretty great, right, kids? I’ll probably get store credit, so put on your adventure hats! We’re about to go on a magical $12 scavenger hunt.’
So how did those schools get approved? Well, Florida’s charter process begins with a lengthy application and IVY Academy’s was 400 pages long. And their founder Trayvon Mitchell included passages like this one, beginning: ‘Instruction is scaffolding to provide targeted support with the goal of increasing independence.’ It goes on and it sounds great but weirdly, we found this application by a school called Franklin Academy in Fort Lauderdale, which predates that by two years and which features this passage, which begins: ‘Instruction will scaffold,’ and then continues in almost exactly the same way. It’s basically identical but for a few small differences, like the Olsen twins. You know, one of them came first and then Mary Kate plagiarized her face. Now, that behavior might not be illegal, but it’s certainly unethical or if I may quote from the IVY Academy handbook, ‘You will not plagiarize works that you find on the Internet. Plagiarism is taking the ideas or writings of others and presenting them as if they were yours.’ So the application for Mitchell’s school would also have been grounds for him getting thrown out of that school. And incidentally, that’s not the only thing he may have stolen. He has since been accused of spending funds for students on himself and is awaiting trial for grand theft.
And the problem with the approval process being too easy is that there is a lot at stake in charter schools. They get paid on a per-student basis. On average that’s about seven thousand dollars for every enrollment and that adds up. Take Philadelphia’s Harambee Charter School. I know, I know, they named it a long time ago and it’s spelled differently. … Now that’s school received more than $5 million in taxpayer money the same year that this story emerged by day:
News segment voiceover: The Harambee Institute charter school looks like any other, educating some 450 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. But by night, the cafeteria turns into Club Domani, a bar that authorities say is unlicensed and illegal…
Oliver: Wow. A nightclub in an elementary school is a recipe for disaster because those are the two most vomit-prone populations in the world. They must have to Febreeze the s— out of that place. Now you’ll be glad to hear that that schools are under new leadership now, although that might be because its CEO pled guilty to fraud, embezzling nearly $80,000 from the Harambee Institute. Rest in peace. And you can say that’s an isolated incident, but it isn’t. In Philadelphia alone at least 10 executives or top administrators have plead guilty in the last decade to charges like fraud, misusing funds and obstruction of justice, which may be why Philly Magazine advises parents: ‘Don’t forget to google any schools you are looking at to make sure they weren’t once unexpectedly shut down or run by a CEO who pleaded guilty to theft.’ All of which speaks to a general atmosphere perhaps best articulated by the state auditor:
Eugene DePasquale, Pennsylvania auditor general: I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Pennsylvania has the worst charter school law in the United States.
Oliver: That is not good because it is not like having the worst something is new for Pennsylvania. Remember, this is a state that has the worst football fans, the worst bell and the worst regional delicacy. Yes, if I wanted Cheese Whiz on my steak sandwich I would eat at Kiddie Cafeteria, the restaurant run by 6-year-olds. And I’m not even sure Pennsylvania deserves to be called the worst because Ohio’s charter law was for decades so lax even charter advocates have called it the Wild West. The state has around 360 charters and their governor, John Kasich, speaks often about how much he loves choice and competition in schools.
Kasich: We will improve the public schools if there’s a sense of competition. Just like a pizza shop in the town, if there’s only one and there’s not much pepperoni on it, you can call ‘til you’re blue in the face. But the best way to get more pepperoni on that pizza is to open up a second pizza shop, and that’s what’s going to improve our public schools.
Oliver: Okay, okay, that doesn’t work on any level. First, no one has ever called it a pizza shop. Second, it’s a little hard to hear the man who just defunded Planned Parenthood talk about the importance of choice. Third, there’s such a thing as paying for extra pepperoni like a normal person. And finally, the notion that the more pizza shops there are the better pizza becomes is effectively undercut by the two words: Papa John’s. But Ohio’s charters have had huge problems with lack of oversight. A review of one year’s state audits found charters misspent public money nearly four times more often than any other form of taxpayer-funded agency. And some cases are incredible, like that of Lisa Hamm, a school superintendent who was accused of spending money for her school on spas, jewelry, luggage, plays, veterinary care and trips to Europe and to see Oprah. She took a plea deal without admitting guilt but not before delivering this fantastic explanation:
Lisa Hamm, former superintendent: Proverbs says without vision, people perish, and it’s very important for people to have a vision for their own lives, and in order to do that they need to experience what’s possible in life, and in order to transfer that to the children they have to experience it themselves.
Oliver: That is amazing. She’s just spouting a bunch of vague b——- about inspiration, crossing her fingers and hoping people will buy it. And you know what, when you put it like that I feel like she has learned a lot from Oprah. Money well spent. And it’s noted for the record [that] when she quoted proverb saying where there is no vision the people perish, she’s leaving out the very next line which is, ‘But he that keepeth the law, happy is he. And that’s a f—— important caveat. And what’s amazing is there are ways to profit off of charter schools perfectly legally in Ohio and they’re have been for years. Look at this episode of Frontline from 2000:
Voiceover from Frontline: By law charter schools must be nonprofit. But the schools can hire an educational management company or EMO to run the school and the EMO can try to make a profit. [David] Brennan calls his EMO White Hat Management.
Brennan: Education is first, last and always a business. If it’s run like a business it can be done profitably.
Oliver: Yes, education is first last and always a business. Take the ‘l’ off the word ‘learning’ and what do you got? ‘Earning.’ Take the ‘e’ off and what do you got? ‘Arning.’ Yeah, sure, that’s not a word, but it could be in one of our English classes. Now that man’s company, White Hat Management, worked on the contracts where each charter would pay 95 percent or more of its government funding to White Hat, which as a private company, isn’t obligated to provide the same level of transparency as, say, a school district. So taxpayers could have little idea how that money was being spent. And who can say if that’s a good system or not? All I know is, White Hat ran 32 of the lowest-performing schools in the state. And if you do essentially the same terrible thing more than 30 times in a row, you’re not a management company. You’re basically Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volumes 2 and 3.
And at this point you may be thinking charters were completely unmonitored, but that is where you would actually be wrong. Because they are approved and overseen by something called authorizers. And while some states sharply limit who can be an authorizer, Ohio allowed many different groups, including nonprofits, to do it, meaning, well, let’s say I wanted to open the John Oliver Academy for Nervous Boys. And let’s say I had a pre-existing nonprofit called ‘Johnny’s Kids’ that could potentially have overseen my school. And that basically happened. Take the Richard Allen chain of schools in Ohio, whose president was a woman called Jeanette Harris. They were overseen by Kids Count, a nonprofit founded by Jeanette Harris, which oversaw the schools as they spent a million tax dollars on management and consulting firms founded by — wait for it — Jeanette f—— Harris. Now Harris denies a conflict of interest because she claims she wasn’t directly involved in decision-making and maybe, maybe, the schools just chose ‘Kids Count’ because it had a proven track record of great oversight. So let’s just check in on one of the other schools they oversaw.
News segment from 2015: A local charter school padded if attendance records resulting in more than a million dollars in extra money. State auditors interviewed students and staff. Their findings show that on any given day there would only be about 30 students in the building, a fraction of the reported 459 enrolled there.
Oliver: Oh, it gets worse. Because when an audit looked into it, they found Kids Count had done the legal minimum oversight required, which I would argue suggests a problem with the legal minimum. Because 30 kids showed up and the school claims they had 450, which doesn’t speak well of an oversight group calling itself Kids Count. Now, Ohio has passed a new law to try and clean up some of the problems. You’ve seen but serious damage has already been done and incredibly there is one more way the charter schools around the country have been allowed to run wild. Because we haven’t even mentioned online charters yet. They serve 180,000 students, and even if they just get the average $7,000 per student, that’s over a billion dollars in taxpayer money going to cybercharters annually. And some have an attendance system you would not f—— believe.
Voiceover from news segment: Sometimes kids aren’t counted absent until they failed to log on for five days in a row, and some are never required to attend class. But the state still requires the schools to report attendance. So most just report 100 percent even though that’s not what’s really going on.
Oliver: That’s just crazy. You’re basically giving kids a box containing video games, pornography and long division and claiming a hundred percent of them chose the right one. And look, some kids might need online education. But it has got to be monitored better because one major study found compared to kids in traditional public schools, student in online charters lost the equivalent of 72 days of learning and reading and 180 days in math during the course of a 180-day school year. And 180 minus 180 is, as those kids might put it, three.
Now charter advocates will tell you that even they are concerned about online schools and they’ll argue some states have much better oversight than the ones that we’ve seen. And that is true, though for the record, some may even be worse. One charter researcher told Ohio, ‘Be very glad that you have Nevada so you are not the worst,’ which I believe is the motto on Nevada state license plates. The point is we don’t have time to get into Nevada.
And advocates will argue all these closings show accountability in action, just like in business schools. But there’s a f—— there. As one former charter school employee explains:
Krystal Castellano, former charter school teacher: This isn’t just a regular business. This isn’t a restaurant that you just open up, you serve your food. people don’t like it, you close it and you move on. This is education. This is students getting left in the middle of the year without a school to go to. So I just think that there needs to be some filter as to who’s opening up these charter schools.
Oliver: Exactly. The problem with letting the free market decide when it comes to kids is that kids change faster than the market. And by the time it’s obvious the school is failing, futures may have been ruined. So if we are going to treat charter schools like pizza shops, we should monitor them at least as well as we do pizzerias. It’s like the old saying, ‘Give a kid a s—– pizza, you’ve f—– up their day. Treat a kid like a s—- pizza, you could f— up their entire life.’