That Oprah has discovered school reform is probably a good thing, if only because she adds middlebrow legitimacy and an immense audience to most of the causes that she embraces, and because far too many Americans (middle-, high-, and low-brow alike) need reminding their schools, too, not just those across town, need a kick in the pants.
Her two-part discussion on April 11 and 12 had millions of viewers. It had some fine moments and did a competent job of framing “the problem” with primary-secondary education in the U.S. It included an impassioned, convincing talk by Bill and Melinda Gates about the urgency of radical reform, in which their foundation is investing many millions. The two-part show also profiled three terrific schools that have succeeded in boosting the achievement of disadvantaged kids, thus illustrating what can be done despite the many barriers to change erected by the education establishment and the political system. Sacramento’s St. Hope Public Schools, San Diego’s High Tech High, and the District of Columbia’s KIPP school are all swell examples of schools that beat the odds.
What nobody on the Oprah show let their millions of views know, however, is that all three of these fine educational institutions are charter schools—and schools of choice. The word “charter” was never uttered—not by Oprah, not by the Gateses, not by the people describing these schools. The very omission of the word begs the conclusion that the show’s planners and producers banned it, or edited it out.
Why would this be? One can only speculate. At best, maybe they dream that schools don’t really need charter status to accomplish these things, or that the charter part of their existence isn’t all that important. At worst, it’s because they’re embarrassed, or politically afraid, to admit that critics of the public school monopoly might just be right: that it needs to be busted if kids, especially poor kids, are to have a ready supply of great schools to attend.
To be sure, not all great schools are chartered. And not all chartered schools are great. But when the fundamental attributes of three great schools profiled on national television include the facts that they operate outside the system, that they enjoy all sorts of freedom that the system doesn’t normally permit, and that they’re attended by kids who are there by choice rather than by assignment—when these features are central to the very existence and success of the schools, wouldn’t you think that Oprah and her guests might feel some obligation to let their viewers in on the secret?
(This piece first appeared as a guest comment on Eduwonk.com.)