HBO’s ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’ Takes a Look at Charter Schools

By Mark Walsh — August 23, 2016 2 min read
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HBO’s John Oliver, the comedian who examines serious policy issues, took on charter schools in the extended segment of his “Last Week Tonight” show.

“Charter schools—the thing politicians love to praise,” Oliver says on the Aug. 21 episode before rolling clips of praise for charters from the likes of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Mitt Romney, who is shown in 2012 saying that “charter schools are so successful that almost every politician can find something good to say about them.”

Oliver points out that “there are now more than 6,700 charter schools educating more than 3 million children.”

“But critics argue that charters overstate their successes, siphon off talented students, and divert precious resources within the school districts,” he adds.

“For this piece, and I know this is going to make some people on both sides angry, we’re going to set aside whether or not charters are a good idea in principle,” Oliver continues. “Because whether they are or not, in 42 states and D.C., we’re doing them. So we’re going to look at how they are in practice.”

(Note: the YouTube version, below, bleeps out Oliver’s frequent use of expletives. The clips on the HBO site don’t bleep them.)

From there, it is trademark “Last Week Tonight,” using research and journalism (always prominently crediting the original source) to highlight some of the troubles of charter schools. (Oliver has also examined other education topics, including standardized testing, sex education, and, most sharply, college sports.)

The examples of charters in practice include those schools that abruptly close midway through the academic year, the charter operator who plagiarized his application from another school’s, and the charter elementary school that turned part of its space into a nightclub in the evening hours.

Oliver skewers Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s praise of charter schools as providers of free market choice by comparing them to “pizza shops.”

And he explains the concept of charter school authorizers by whimsically contemplating the launch of a charter called the “John Oliver School for Nervous Boys.”

“We haven’t even mentioned online charters yet,” Oliver says, calling the cyber sphere “one more way charter schools [are] allowed to run wild.”

Oliver seems to run out of steam as he draws to a pretty basic conclusion that charters need more and better oversight.

“If we are going to treat charter schools like ‘pizza shops,’ we should monitor them at least as well as we do pizzerias,” he says.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.