In case you missed it, John Oliver recently did a segment on his HBO “Last Week Tonight” show blasting troubled charter schools in several states around the country. It was very very funny — but charter supporters were not in the slightest bit amused.
How annoyed were they? Well, the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit pro-charter organization, is offering $100,000 to the school that creates the best rebuttal video to Oliver’s rant. Really.
It’s called the “Hey John Oliver! Back Off My Charter School!” Video Contest, and all applicants have to do is come up with a retort explaining why charters are fabulous — in no longer than three minutes — and properly submit their video. You can read about it here. Who can compete? The official rules say the $100,000 winner will be a charter school (so nobody else need apply). Submissions are being accepted from Tuesday through Sept. 26, 2016.
In his charter piece, Oliver talked not only about financial impropriety at some charters but also about the central idea that applying business principles to public education is a good idea. It hasn’t proved to be during the past 15 or so years of corporate school restructuring under Republican and Democratic presidents, but supporters persist, despite growing opposition among parents, students and educators.
The center’s website says:
Wait … who said what about what?
In mid-August John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, leveled a very unfair, unfortunate, unbalanced, unwarranted and generally unhinged tirade against charter schools.
Here is a brief summary of Mr. Oliver’s presentation: “Some charter schools have been mismanaged. Ergo, ipso facto, presto change-o, all charter schools are bad, bad, bad.”
As we said, it was very unfortunate — especially since the show has been viewed by more than five million people and is being used as a propaganda piece against charters everywhere.
But thanks to CER’s “Hey John Oliver! Back Off My Charter School!” Video Contest, you now have the chance to help set the record straight and let people know how much charter schools are helping their children, families, teachers and communities.
AND you have the chance to win $100,000 for your school.
The Center for Education Reform is a big supporter of charter schools and other key elements of corporate school reform. Among its big funders are the Bradley Foundation and the Gleason Family Foundation, according to tax returns, and in 2013, it received a $250,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “to advance high quality charter policies.” In 2003, it honored former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a pioneer of corporate school reform, as part of its 10th anniversary festivities.
A center spokeswoman said the $100,000 award will come from program funds, which are raised from among more than 1,000 donors annually.
Here is part of a transcript of Oliver’s piece, to give you an idea of the content and tone:
… 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 till 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 schools 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 bulls––– 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 Proverbs 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–––ing important caveat. And what’s amazing is there are ways to profit off charter schools perfectly legally in Ohio and there have been for years. Look at this episode of Frontline from 2000:
Voice-over 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 preexisting 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–––ing 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 its 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 to 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 cyber charters annually. And some have an attendance system you would not f–––ing believe.
Voice-over 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 100 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, bad schools close. But there’s a f–––ing problem there. As one former charter school employee explains:
Krystal Castellano, former charter schoolteacher: 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–––ty pizza, you’ve f–––ed up their day. Treat a kid like a s–––ty pizza, you could f––– up their entire life.’
(Update: More info on funding of contest)