John Oliver's half-truths about school choice
I gave the late night comedian a hard time when he came for charter schools, but I welcomed his recent segment about the culture warriors in education
This is why I should never have fixed positions. Times change, and when facts warrant it, so should our minds.
Back in 2016 John Oliver attacked charter schools. At the time I was having none of Oliver’s careless swipes at something so important to my people. I saw the ability to charter a public school as a self-determination strategy for educators and communities of color.
On Twitter, my response was trademark and curt:
That wasn’t enough. On Medium, I had more to say:
Going on a limb here, I might guess most of Oliver’s viewers are more familiar with the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and foodie circuits than the dry research studies and counter-studies proving and disproving the success or failure of charter schools. That makes them perfect stooges for highly stylized infotainment that makes smart people dumber.
Oliver’s take on charters use the classic fried chicken and watermelon problem. You take something universal and make it specific and powerfully negative for a targeted minority population. All public schools have scandals and shortcomings, but he makes those problems seem unique to charters. It generates undue bias by projecting the ills we all share onto one group of scapegoats.
In education, charter school parents are educational minorities with far too few progressive defenders. Their schools are accused relentlessly of cherry-picking their students, “counseling out” unsuccessful students,” getting results by using some recently discovered educational voodoo called “test-prep,” and making students walk the line in hallways with their fingers over their lips.
Somehow critics making these charges refuse to address the serious and fundamental problems on their own system. In fact, traditional schools select students in inequitable patterns using residential address as an exclusionary tool (the ultimate in cherry-picking); school districts contract with alternative schools to take students they can’t or don’t want to educate; schools sort students by supposed ability or through clever systems of determining talent, and, in 19 states are still allowed to paddle students.
Since then I haven’t paid much attention to the man because I’m neither over-educated nor progressive with a massive blindspot about what American public schools do to people who aren’t either of those things.
I’m not his audience.
His ‘Last Week Tonight’ segment dresses down the crazed campaign that culture warriors are waging against academic freedom, inclusive public schools, and history proficiency. It also mounts a more-than-adequate level of ridicule for the shameless architects of the anti-CRT campaign who are working like dirt devils to turn school board meetings into dysfunctional pooh-flinging contests.
His writing and delivery are so good, I’m damn near inclined to call for a Mark Twain award.
Here are the things I think he gets right in the video:
He frames the issue as a manufactured crisis. He sets up his presentation by saying “we thought we’d take a step back and look at what Critical Race Theory is and isn’t. Why panic around it has spread. And, what the consequences might be for everyone involved.” After that, he delivers the goods on those three points.
He brings a ton of receipts including examples from print media and cable news. Yes, it’s comedy, but he uses legitimate polling and research to support his arguments, as well has endless example of FOX “news” hosts sounding absolutely bananas (my favorite is at 3:52 when Tucker Carlson admits he still doesn’t know what CRT is after “a year and a half of talking about it”) when you string them all together.
He directly challenges the most daffy claims made by anti-CRT culture warriors, such as CRT “teaches kids that some people are superior to others and that they should hate America.” Oliver allow’s Kimberly Crenshaw, a founding voice of CRT to answer that point by saying she and her colleagues take the 13th and 14th Amendments seriously, and America would realize its true potential if it did as well.
He admits that diversity trainings in schools get whacky sometimes. He gives an example of students being separated by eye color and then treated differently to teach lessons about discrimination. One of his staff writers had this experience as a student Chicago Public Schools. When he asks her about it she says simply “it was pretty f*#&ked up.”
He keeps it funny. Most of the culture warriors in Oliver’s lunatic reel look like constipated blowhards who look like they’ve been huffing the ashes of confederate statues. After a clip of anti-CRT activist When Christopher Rufo says his culture war will “depolarize” education by giving parents options, Oliver shoots back with “Oh so you're doing all of this to tone down part of that fight are you chris? Very cool of you. You've probably noticed that general wave of calm chill vibe sweeping the nation lately. If there is one word i would use to describe every image coming out of a school board meeting these days it is depolarized.”
All that said, the segment wasn’t all hallelujahs for me.
When Oliver makes the argument that the anti-CRT push is a cynical ploy for instituting school choice (see: 12:52), I get the same vibes as when he made his anti-charter school segment in 2016. Again, like my support for charters, my support for school choice is as a means of self-determination. I believe the right to an education for historically marginalized people includes the right to decide how and where education is conducted.
Yet, this is what he says:
In fact, the roots of these school choice, movement, trace back to the Brown versus Board of Education decision when southern states adopted voucher programs to facilitate the creation of private schools called segregation Academies.
And, some of those taking advantage of school choice today sure seem to be doing some heavy indoctrination of their own: Take Florida. It is one of the states that allows public money to go to voucher schools and a few years back and investigation into some of them found commonly used textbooks that downplayed the horrors of slavery. One of them is this one, “America: Land That I Love” which has all the kind of bullshit that you would expect….[like] the slave who knew Christ had more freedom than a free person who did not know the Savior, which is not just offensive, it is profoundly stupid, Any kid reading that absolute trombone-slide of a sentence would instantly drop two full grades. It sounds less like something. You'd find in a textbook and more like something you find crocheted, on a throw pillow in Paula, Deen's living room.
It’s not unkind for me to point out that Oliver is the son of two college-educated parents, both were educators, who sent him to a school where young people wear ties, in a country that publicly funds private school choice.
Education worked out for him and probably will for his children, who, as it turns out, are born into a family with money and options.
Yet, when he uses his massive platform to tell half-truths about school choice (his video has 2.5 million views and counting), he indirectly contributes to the inequities that many of intended beneficiaries of school choice programs encounter in education deserts.
I’m being careful with my words when I say “half-truths about school choice.” That’s to indicate that Oliver isn’t fully lying about a portion of the school choice movement.
Yes, it is true that there are conservative foundations and think tanks who are so myopically devoted to vouchers and so morally relativistic that if they thought decriminalizing lynching would get voucher programs established they would consider it an acceptable means to an end.
It is also true that school choice has some roots in systemic racism. The phenomena of southern segregation academies is a matter of public record.
And, I can’t argue with the idea that some school choice folks are actively pitching their proposals as a way for racist parents to create tax-funded safe harbor for their little-racists-in-training.
Still, it is also true that millions of children, the poor and nonwhite, are redlined into dysfunctional systems that offer too few pathways to upward mobility. The education ghettos those children - young people as precious as any others - live in are like manmade lakes formed by racist housing, economic, and urban planning policies that compounded generations of misery over time. It is beyond disingenuous to pretend that the interests of these families in having educational alternatives should be summarily dismissed as byproducts of the Richard Spencer wing of the school choice movement.
Two things are true: there are racist people pushing school choice and there are victims of racism who need, want, and deserve school choice.
Though I see bothsiderism as the refuge of incompetent thinker too cowardly to form judgement, here’s my version of it. When very smart people shoot bows across the white political divide from left to right, they tell the truth on each other.
Oliver is right to call out the political right for stoking white grievance to win elections. And for trampling on a good number of our civil liberties on their way their election victories.
Conversely, the right-wingers are also credible when they call out the Olivers of the world for preaching devotion to traditional public schools only when they have access to the best of them. For people who love to read all the race books, and trade in the the ally virtues, “progressives” certainly cling to a lifetime fund of white privilege when they insist other people’s children need to sacrifice their futures to the unfairly designed system of public schooling.
If the white rights movement wants to strip people of color from having an equal say in what gets taught in public schools, and Randi Weingarten, the political leader of teachers, comes to stand with us to fight back, so be it.
And, if the fauxgressives want to trap our young people in schools that others abandon, schools that will certainly rob our youth of their potential, and Betsy DeVoss shows up with a ticket to opportunity, guess what?
Let’s go Betsy.
There. You all can hate me now.
If you haven’t watched Oliver’s segment, here it is: