On Sunday, liberal comedian and “destroyer” of all worlds John Oliver took school choice to task, pointing out a number of financial abuses shifty charter school operations have perpetrated over the years. The segment was very anecdotal and, as Nick Gillespie dissects in Reason, left out a lot of positive evidence for charters.
What I found most problematic, however, was Oliver’s moral argument against markets in education. Despite having promised at the top of the segment that he would not be arguing against charters as a concept, the funny man seemed to be doing precisely that in his criticism of remarks Ohio Governor John Kasich made about choice.
Kasich said, “We will improve the public schools if there’s a sense of competition. Just like a pizza shop in the town, if there’s only one and there’s not much pepperoni on it, you can call ‘til you’re blue in the face. But the best way to get more pepperoni on that pizza is to open up a second pizza shop, and that’s what’s going to improve our public schools.”
Okay, okay, that doesn’t work on any level. First, no one has ever called it a pizza shop. Second, it’s a little hard to hear the man who just defunded Planned Parenthood talk about the importance of choice. Third, there’s such a thing as paying for extra pepperoni like a normal person. And finally the notion that the more pizza shops there are the better pizza becomes is effectively undercut by the two words: Papa John’s. But Ohio’s charters have had huge problems with lack of oversight. A review of one year’s state audits found charters misspent public money nearly four times more often than any other form of taxpayer-funded agency …
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.
If education isn’t analogous to pizza, then it certainly isn’t analogous to abortion. Leaving aside those odd remarks, Oliver’s underlying point that “kids change faster than the market” can be used to argue for school choice as well.
Certainly a bad charter school won’t magically transform into a good one overnight. But you know what will take even longer to improve? Traditional public schools.
Indeed, the greatest benefit of charter schools is that they’re not as weighed down by the bloated bureaucracy, regulation, and union contracts that are endemic of district schools. Improvement always takes time, but it takes a lot less time with charters because they’re subject to competition.
Bad charters shut down, children move to different (and hopefully better) schools, and life continues. But what about poor children with no school choice assigned to failing schools simply because of their zip codes? Those kids are still growing “faster than the market,” but there’s no market to serve their needs.
The National Alliance for Public Schools responded to Oliver’s segment in one of the classiest press releases I’ve ever encountered:
To be clear, anyone who is not in education for the betterment of students has no right to be in education. But these select examples should not tarnish the good work being done by dedicated charter school educators across 43 states and Washington, DC. At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, we are strong advocates for policies and laws that both hold charter schools accountable and allow great charter schools to open and flourish. We take seriously the issues raised by “Last Week Tonight,” and we will continue our work to strengthen charter school oversight in areas that are falling short.
That’s right, only hours after Oliver’s segment aired, the market responded to the criticism, promising to address it. I’d like to see a public school issue a similarly humble announcement.
School choice critics like Oliver often claim that education is too venerable a service to be subject to the whims of the “free market.” To the contrary, the fundamental importance of learning is precisely why children should have choice. Children do grow faster than the market, but they grow even faster than the government.