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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Talking HBO and School Reform

By Rick Hess — September 14, 2016 3 min read
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While I was on blog break in August finishing Letters to a Young Education Reformer, HBO host John Oliver did a segment making fun of charter schools. The result? A large swath of the education policy world lost it. It was like Bill Clinton and the Loch Ness Monster had crashed a Trump rally. Some folks were livid, others were elated (Robert Pondiscio had the best take on the whole thing here). Given that I’m still getting emails about it, I thought the following conversation might be worth sharing.

I hopped into my Uber just as I was wrapping up yet another heated phone conversation about Oliver’s segment.

My Uber driver looked up. “I don’t want to intrude,” he said. “But I just heard you talking about John Oliver’s HBO show.”

I said, “Sure was.”

He said, “I don’t know why but, soon as you get a guy with a British accent, people think he’s witty. Me? I’ve never found the guy to be funny. Didn’t care for him on The Daily Show and don’t watch his HBO thing.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “But he’s got a lot of YouTube hits. And young people watch YouTube.”

“And these young people are watching HBO clips on YouTube to get up to speed on education policy, are they?” he asked.

“Maybe not on purpose,” I said, “but they’re absorbing these horrible, misleading, and inaccurate depictions of charter schooling. It’s like drinking tap water in the wrong country, it’ll infect your system.”

“Hmm,” he said. He told me he used to teach. He asked what the commotion was all about.

I told him how Oliver had used outdated, cheap-shot anecdotes to try and smear charter schooling. I told him that we weren’t going to have it. That we reform types didn’t truck in cheap shots.

He said, “If I remember right, seems to me like you reformers used to take great joy in seeing traditional school districts pilloried by John Stossel and folks like that?”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, “but that was different.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“Well, this John Oliver thing hurt students,” I said. “That stuff was just about truth-telling.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Here’s a question,” he said. “How do you even know that Oliver much cares about charter schools? He’s just doing shtick, right? Now, I’ve never watched Oliver. But I used to watch Jon Stewart. When Stewart or his correspondents would make fun of Obama or of drive-through daiquiri shops in Louisiana, I didn’t think he was anti-Obama or anti-daiquiri. I thought he was just being funny. Why are you all taking Oliver so seriously?”

“He’s got a lot of YouTube views,” I reminded him. “And he’s cool. People think he’s cool. They care what he thinks.”

“Do you think he’s cool?” he asked.

“Not so much,” I said. “But I hear that other people do.”

“Well, you want to hear what I think?” he asked.

I told him sure.

“I mean, I’m not an expert like you,” he said, “but seems to me your real problem is that a lot of regular people don’t think charter schools matter for them and their kids. I mean, sure, maybe it helps city people trapped in lousy schools, but I’m driving 60 hours a week to keep my house. I like my kids’ schools. I paid good money to buy my house in my school district. I’ve still never heard anyone much explain why charter schools are good for my kids.”

“That’s nuts,” I said. “CREDO reports serious test gains for kids in urban charters. A lot of charters have long wait lists. ‘No excuses’ schools are doing great things for kids who would be trapped in high-poverty, broken schools.”

He looked up in the mirror. “Like I said, none of that tells me why these charters are good for my kids. I pay taxes. I work hard. I send my kids to public schools. There’s millions of parents like me. You convince me that charter schools are good for my kids and for my neighborhood, too, and I won’t give a flip what an HBO comedian thinks. I’ll bet the same goes for a lot of other folks.”

He paused. “Rather than worrying about the British guy, you might want to spend more time figuring out why guys like me should give two figs about charter schools, one way or the other.”

“Huh,” I said. “You may be onto something.”

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