Comedian’s Controversial Piece Highlights Importance of Strong Charter Authorizing

On August 21, HBO comedian John Oliver did a controversial segment where he attacked chartered schools in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, as well as educational management organizations (EMOs). The clip went “viral” inside education policy circles, receiving nearly 7 million views.

His segment has received both praise and criticism. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an email, “John Oliver did something amazing.” NYU professor, Diane Ravitch, encouraged people to “write and tweet John Oliver to thank him.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools criticized his segment in an August 22 press release asserting, “...these select examples should not tarnish the good work being done by dedicated charter school educators.” Similarly, The Center for Education Reform (CER) called his segment a “unfortunate, unbalanced, unwarranted, and generally unhinged tirade.” In fact, his piece inspired CER to create the “Hey John Oliver, Back off my Charter School!” Video Contest.

Whatever your views are on chartering, Oliver’s piece did bring to light an important issue—lax state charter authorizing laws. Unfortunately, in his piece Oliver only focused on a couple of states whose authorizing laws are not up to par and failed to celebrate states that have high-quality laws.

In Minnesota, there has been extensive work done to ensure that the state’s charter law holds charter authorizers to a high standard. In 2009, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that tightened criteria for which organizations could become authorizers, implemented a regular state review process of all authorizers, and required authorizers to provide additional oversight of charter school governance, operations, and finance. (For more information about the current state of authorizing in Minnesota, read our earlier blog post.)

According to the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, the law was a response to 2008 reports produced by the Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, and the Institute on Race and Poverty that “raised questions about the [charter] schools’ administration and performance.”

Education Evolving, the producer of this blog, was an advocate for the 2009 changes. Bob Wedl, a former Minnesota Commissioner of Education and EE Senior Fellow said that, “Before 2009, the state of authorizing [in Minnesota] was terrible. Anybody could sign up. Many never did anything. Never even visited their schools.”

Minnesota’s authorizing laws have been praised nationally. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers ranked Minnesota 6th in the country for its charter authorizing laws. In addition, CER recognized Minnesota for its “responsible authorizing—opening strong charter schools while holding current charters accountable to their contracts.” Minnesota also was cited as a model state in a recent LA Times op-ed on charter oversight.

Oliver acknowledged that his piece would make “people on both sides angry.” Ideally Oliver’s piece will not further fuel generic arguments about the merits of chartered schools overall, but will be seen as a call for some states to reexamine their laws governing charter school authorizers. Minnesota’s 2009 law changes may offer some ideas.

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