John Oliver: Failing Charter Schools May Ruin Kids' Futures

When it's clear a school is failing, it may already be too late to act.

Last Week Tonight/YouTube

John Oliver’s known for devoting whole Last Week Tonight episodes ridiculing a topic, but Sunday’s episode was different. Taking a look at charter schools, Oliver specifically set aside their excellent track record in student performance, noting that because of this, they enjoy bipartisan support. Instead, Oliver focused his attention on flaws in the system where some charter schools fail students.

In the United States, there are 6,700 charter schools with nearly 3 million students, and they operate in 42 states plus the District of Columbia. The schools are privately run, but take money from the taxpayer. Charter schools receive approximately $7,000 per enrolled student, and the lack of oversight in some states leads to disastrous outcomes.

The thing is, when a school fails, it’s completely different to when a business fails. “The problem with letting the free market decide when it comes to kids is that kids change faster than the market,” Oliver said. “By the time it’s obvious that a charter school is failing, childrens’ futures may have been ruined.”

Two years ago, an investigation in Florida found that since 2008, 119 charter schools had closed, 14 of which never even finished their first year. “Fourteen schools in Florida were outlasted by NBC’s Mysteries of Laura!” Oliver said.

Oliver drew attention to Philadelphia’s Harambee Institute of Science and Technology — no relation to Harambe — which was an elementary school by day, but by night, the cafeteria became an unlicensed bar called Club Damani. On top of that, the school’s CEO plead guilty to two counts of wire fraud.

“You can say that’s an isolated incident, but it isn’t!” Oliver said. In Philadelphia alone, at least 10 charter school executives and administrators in the last decade plead guilty to money-related charges.

That’s not even taking into account online charter schools. “Some have an attendance system you would not fucking believe!” Oliver said. These schools account for around 180,000 students, which would mean around $1 billion of taxpayer money goes to these schools. Some of these schools don’t require kids to even attend, but as states typically require attendance records, the school simply declares that 100 percent of students had perfect attendance.

Oliver cited comments from Ohio governor John Kasich, who said that charter schools were like “pizza shops.” When two pizzerias have to compete, in theory the quality of the product improves. Ignoring the fact that nobody calls it a “pizza shop,” Oliver summed up the episode with this: “Give a kid a shitty pizza, you’ve fucked up their day. Treat a kid like a shitty pizza, you could fuck up their life.”

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