It’s back-to-school season, and John Oliver used his Sunday HBO show Last Week Tonight to talk about charter schools. “Charters are basically public schools that are taxpayer funded, but privately run,” Oliver explained. “The first ones opened 25 years ago as places to experiment with new educational approaches, and since then they’ve exploded. There are now over 6,700 charter schools educating almost 3 million students.”
Charter schools tend to get bi-partisan support across the nation, with many shining examples of great teaching methods. “We’re going to set aside whether or not charter schools are a good idea in principle because whether they are or not, in 42 states and DC we’re doing them, so instead we’re going to look at how they operate,” Oliver said. He then focused closely on three of the worst states: Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
“Two years ago, a Florida paper found that since 2008, 119 charter schools had closed there, 14 of which had never even finished their first school year,” Oliver lamented. The host highlighted a few of the schools that shut down in their first year operating, including one that was operating a night club in the school’s cafeteria. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, where some of the most lax charter school laws in the country are in place, Oliver explained how charter school executives skirted regulatory guidelines, embezzled money, fudged attendance numbers, and even plagiarized the applications that charter schools are required to submit in order to open their doors.
The host moved to the subject of online charter schools. “You’re basically giving kids a box that contains video games, pornography and long division and claiming 100 percent of them chose the right one,” Oliver said. “One major study found that compared to students in traditional schools, students in online charters lost the equivalent of about 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math during the course of a 180-day school year. And 180 minus 180 is, as those kids might put it, three.” According to Oliver, even charter advocates agree that online charter school are a bad idea.
“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,” he said.