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No, Late-Night Comedians Aren’t Education Experts

HBO’s John Oliver goes off on charter schools, but the joke’s on him.

Want to pick an argument on late-night TV? Dare to suggest that kids shouldn’t be trapped in failing schools. In an 18-minute, profanity-laced tirade, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver took aim at charter schools, ripping them apart as unaccountable, unreliable and riddled with corruption. Which is different from your average public school? Oliver can be a funny guy, but this time the joke’s on him.

Charter schools are public schools funded through tax dollars but privately managed and independently run. As explained by the National Charter School Resource Center, charters have “significant operational autonomy to pursue specific educational objectives.” In other words, they’re not completely bound by government bureaucracy when it comes to curriculum, budgets and the like. Instead, they’re free to create an educational environment that serves students — not bureaucrats and certainly not the teachers’ unions that are more interested in perks, pensions and political agendas than in educating kids. Critics, like the unions, argue that charters drain money from traditional public schools — as if the money exists to prop up failing schools rather than to give kids the best education.

The truth is that while traditional public schools don’t have to deliver good results to receive tax dollars and students, charters actually have to do some work to stay open. “In exchange for greater freedom,” Reason’s Nick Gillespie explains, charters get significantly less per-pupil funding than traditional schools … and typically no funds for buildings and other physical plant. Most importantly, unlike traditional schools, charters must voluntarily attract students.“

And there’s a reason they’re doing just that in the 42 states (and DC) where they operate. While the traditional government school system assigns kids to schools based on zip codes — relegating kids to failing and sometimes even violent schools — charters give students hope. In fact, charter enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that public charter school enrollment shot from 800,000 students in the 2003-04 school year to 2.5 million in 2013-14. Over this same period, the percentage of public school students attending charters rose from 1.6% to 5.1%.

And while studies on overall charter school achievement as compared with traditional public school achievement paint a mixed picture, charters do a better job of educating students who are often left behind by traditional public schools, including urban and low-income students.

So, what’s John Oliver’s problem with charters? In a series of bizarre attacks, Oliver links charters to the Cosby sex scandal (because Cosby once spoke at a charter school); accuses charter school operators of fraud and embezzlement (as if public school operators are utterly graft-free); claims charters are unaccountable; and attempts to add shock value to the fact that charter schools sometimes close. Evidently in Oliver’s little mind, schools should be like government programs — living in perpetuity regardless of how bad they are.

Yet, in the face of failing schools and charter school waiting lists that by some accounts include hundreds of thousands of students if not more, one of the nation’s biggest teachers’ unions nearly tripped over itself praising Oliver’s attack on educational opportunity.

The Washington Examiner reports that in an email to union activists, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote, "Education matters too much to let bad practices by unethical, incompetent profiteers undermine our public schools. What John Oliver exposed underscores why we need to hold charter schools accountable to the public. … Let’s make sure everyone sees the truth.”

Of course, Weingarten doesn’t mean the actual truth, which is that teachers’ unions have long been the primary roadblock to education reform in America — and the primary reason more kids haven’t been able to escape failing schools.

In reality, Oliver’s tirade against charters echoes the arguments of leftists from Vladimir Lenin forward, who believe children belong to the government and that government should determine where they go to school — even if that means trapping them in inadequate, violent, schools that will barely teach them to read, let alone equip them to compete in the workplace.

It’s without excuse that anyone — be it John Oliver or teachers’ unions — would try to prevent kids from escaping the prison of failing schools.

That’s the truth everyone should see.

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