America’s school-choice lobby can relax: when ABC’s Abbott Elementary returns this Wednesday [April 5], the plot will hinge on teacher qualifications, not charter school takeovers.
That’s good news for a community that’s used to being taken seriously – very seriously. Wherever charter supporters go, they usually have friends to defend their interests. But the choice lobby wasn’t represented in the Abbott writers’ room. Nobody stood in the way as the hit sitcom raked charters over the comedy coals, presenting them as cynical, counterproductive, and even absurd.
As a journalist who covered Philadelphia’s charters for years, I expected to see people like Veney and Allen vigorously defend their industry. That’s what they’re paid to do.
I just wish somebody would pay them to take a good hard look in the mirror. Because as merciless as the sitcom’s portrayal of district-charter relations may have been, to me it looked far more accurate than charter supporters care to admit.
Admittedly, some might say I’m biased. As a reporter for WHYY News and the late, great Public School Notebook, I saw the ugly up close. In over a decade on the beat, I saw politicians meddle and school boards dissemble. I saw underperforming charters stay open while district-run schools shut down. I heard officials beg repeatedly for relief from costly charter payments that drain district budgets.
And I saw the real-life versions of the charter takeover featured in Abbott’s recent episodes. The sitcom version was funny. The real-life version was downright cruel.
In what our school district dubbed the “Renaissance” process, Philadelphia asked school communities to pick sides and fight it out. What America just saw on television, I saw a decade ago in places like Steel Elementary and Muñoz-Marín Elementary and Wister Elementary and Martin Luther King High.
It was brutal. Parents were asked to choose between imperfect schools they knew and blue-sky promises from well-dressed “providers” they’d never met. The resulting campaigns were every bit as impassioned and intrigue-riddled as any other Philadelphia election. I did my best to cover them fairly, and interviewed countless parents. Plenty were willing to consider a charter, for plenty of reasons.
But the question that came up most often: “If our school’s not good enough, why don’t they just fix our school?”
I had no answer, and the School District of Philadelphia never really did either.
That’s what rings the most true for me about Abbott’s charter episodes: the underlying absurdity of offering “choice” as a solution to an underfunded system. How do you fix one school by opening another? Especially when the old schools have to pay for new ones?
Think about it: no other government service is run that way. Nobody offers “trash collection choice” or “police choice.” Nor do prosperous suburban school districts choose “choice.” They choose to invest in their own schools, not open new ones run by somebody else.
But America’s choice lobby isn’t used to being laughed at. Which may explain the bitter edge to the tweets from Allen, who accused Abbott creator Quinta Brunson of hypocrisy: “attended charter schools her entire education.”
In fact, Brunson went to a public elementary school in West Philadelphia, and a now-closed charter high school. “You’re wrong and bad at research,” Brunson tweeted. “Loving something doesn’t mean it can’t be critiqued.”
So Brunson could easily dismiss Allen. But Philadelphia cannot easily dismiss its charters or their impact. The city’s 83 charters now educate about 65,000 students – almost enough to fill Lincoln Financial Field. They have powerful friends in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, including deep roots in parts of Philadelphia’s Black and brown communities.
How deep? Consider the recent Board of Education forum for Philly’s mayoral candidates. None significantly challenged charters’ role, and several embraced potential charter expansion, including having charters serve as neighborhood elementary schools, like the fictional Abbott.
Take Maria Quiñones Sánchez, who helped launch a charter: “We cannot tell parents, wait until we fix the whole system.”
Or Cherelle Parker, whose home turf in Northwest Philly is a charter stronghold: “We will not have an us-versus-them strategy.”
Or Derek Green, a former charter board member, who wants an “independent authorizer” to award charters, not the school district: “Parents do not believe that there’s not bias in the approval.”
Or Rebecca Rhynhart, who was serving under Mayor Michael Nutter when a Renaissance charter takeover collapsed amidst allegations of corruption and cronyism: “We can’t wait till the neighborhood schools get up to the place where every parent is comfortable.”
Even Helen Gym, a relentless charter-policy critic but also a charter founder, said she’d concentrate on strengthening District-run schools: “I don’t mind choice, but my focus is public schools.”
So charters may disappear from Abbott’s scripts, but in Philadelphia, they’re here to stay.
And now that America has seen charters’ bad side, how will the sector respond?
There’s plenty the charter lobby could do, if its deep-pocket donors choose. It could better support Philadelphia’s community-based charters, many of which badly need financial, academic, strategic and legal assistance. It could help stabilize district budgets by supporting much-needed statewide reforms. It could take a strong stand against obvious absurdities, like giving cyber-charters the same per-student payments as brick-and-mortar schools.
Sadly, my experience says the charter lobby won’t do any of those things.
Instead, it’ll probably keep lobbying for more charter schools. And if charters are on TV, they’ll lobby TV. They’ll be calling executives and advertisers to complain. And I can guarantee that somebody is hiring writers to gin up a pro-charter sitcom. I bet it’ll be full of union jokes. And I bet it won’t be funny.
Bill Hangley, Jr. can be found on Twitter @hangleyjr