Taking John Oliver To School

Taking John Oliver To School

It's really easy to drive your point home by "destroying" or "obliterating" your opponents through misinformation, profanity, and hyperbole. It's also so effective that people like John Oliver make millions each year doing it. But his recent bit on "Charter Schools" doesn't destroy anything but Oliver's poorly constructed argument. The bit highlights stereotypical and false ideas about the nature of charter schools and their positive effects. There's more than enough content for 3 pieces on his errors, but instead we'll focus on dissecting 3 key points that underly any critique of his claims: the premise of his argument, the concept of school accountability, and his in-name-only concept of a free market.

Premises

Oliver opens his bit by highlighting all the presidential candidates who've supported charter schools. Noticeably absent is the current Democratic Nominee, Hillary Clinton. He uses this tactic to showcase his critique as "unpopular", but necessary. He then goes on to say that the point of this segment is not to say whether or not charter schools are good or bad, but to discuss their "very nature." If that's not the point, then why is the rest of the bit entirely made up of negative stories about charter schools? Why is it insinuating their proponents are criminals robbing children? There's no weighing of the pros and cons, no discussion of the benefits of charter schools, and no acknowledgement that public schools have no real measured improvement despite massive increases in funding over the past 60 years. One of the things kids learn when writing fiction is that they need to establish the premises of their fictional world to support their narrative. If the premises don't fit your narrative, then change them!

Accountability

Much of his piece is centered around moments where charter schools were held accountable by the public. While Oliver tries to make these examples a reason why charter schools are bad, he completely misses the lack of similar accountability for traditional public schools. In each case, Oliver cites criminal cases as an example of charter school administrators as a whole. Maybe he should read this article from Reason, which cites that more Detroit public school principals have been charged with crimes in 2016 than all charter school CEOs in Oliver's rant. Charter schools shutting down is the best example of accountability. Public schools, through various perverse incentives built up over decades, are nearly impossible to close and receive more funding than charter schools. Oliver cites that charter schools are funded per pupil, which is true in some cases, but certainly not all. And, even when they are, they are certainly not funded equally. One of the greatest moments in education was the Brown v Board of Education ruling that separate but equal could never be realized because it is inherently not equal. Apparently that only applies to race!

"The Free Market"

The "free market" is a constant source of confusion for almost everybody who ascribes it with fault. In Oliver's mind, it means anything that isn't sufficiently regulated to his idea of how the world should be. In the beginning of the piece, Oliver acknowledges that charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run. This statement on its face is true, and it's also true that this necessarily invalidates our education market as free. If the government is assigning schools based on criteria like zip code, how is that an example of a liberated and maximized public choice? If the government is funding specific schools over others, it is providing market preference under its own criteria. Public schools are probably the worst example of a free market Oliver could have chosen. However, we shouldn't expect him to apply definitions he doesn't understand to concepts he finds disagreeable. That's not what comedians do. By opening up his argument by acknowledging that charter schools are publicly funded, he invalidates his closing statement:

"The problem with letting the free market decide when it comes to kids is that kids change faster than the market. By the time to obvious the school is failing, futures have been ruined."

It is correct to say that people change faster than markets, but that's a feature not a bug. Markets are a post-choice mechanism. Without an individual deciding to do something, a market does not exist. Therefore, it is impossible for a market of anything to "change faster" than people because markets are created and perpetuated by constantly changing actions. To put it in a metaphor Oliver may understand: The free market is like fucking play-doh. It's just dough that changes shape after you decide to fucking mold it. 

Oliver's argument is also like play-doh: a shapeless form lacking in substance that smells kinda weird and is digestible by kids. There's plenty of things that charter schools need to do to improve. Anyone who honestly advocates for charters will be the first to admit it. But the beauty of the charter system is that they are able to change in ways that are far more innovative than traditional public schools. Charters allow for the kind of dynamism in institutions that Oliver claims is lacking in a free market. They also can be easily shut down if they are failing. Many of the facts about charter schools refute Oliver's segment and overall narrative. But in order to take him seriously, we need to accept the premises of his show: a comedian delivering a cake built on jokes and iced with saccharine notes of news.

If we take that for what it is, it's not even that funny.

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