'Abbott Elementary' goes all-in against charter schools
(The Hill) – ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” has made charter schools its boogeyman.
The popular sitcom, now in its sophomore season, is wrapping up an arc in which the titular institution, a chaotic but whimsical inner-city Philadelphia school, faces off against the big, bad charter company down the street, Legendary Schools, which is actively seeking to incorporate it.
“They don’t even require all their teachers be certified,” one Abbott educator laments of their rival in an episode that aired earlier this month.
“Yet they take our funding, not to mention the private money from wealthy donors with ulterior motives,” another replies.
Later in the same episode, a former Abbott student returns after having been kicked out of the Legendary charter, apparently for dragging down its test results.
“They don’t see students, they see scores,” an Abbott teacher says.
Biden Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, for one, sounds like a fan. Speaking with The Hill on Sunday, Cardona said that while he doesn’t “have a particular statement around charter schools,” he emphasized: “I love what ‘Abbott Elementary’ has done.”
“I think I want to see an episode about how some states are trying to privatize schools. That’s the episode that I would want to be — have them hone in on because I think that’s an issue that we really should be worried about,” Cardona said.
And the plot line has not gone without notice from education advocates and the larger public, including a glowing essay in The New Yorker on Thursday that called it “an artful, sustained, and hilarious polemic against the privatization of public schools,” though the story has also drawn considerable pushback from supporters of the charter movement.
“We obviously don’t like charter schools being vilified or mischaracterized, and no one likes being vilified or mischaracterized,” Debbie Veney, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in an interview with The Hill. “However, we try to take it with somewhat of a grain of salt, because it is a comedy, and there is hyperbole and exaggeration built into the device of satire.”
Veney added that “one thing that really stood out to me and kind of made me feel a little bit better” was the show’s depiction of how the head of Legendary Schools, played by Leslie Odom Jr., was “inspired by the great education” he received as a child, including from one Abbott teacher who particularly touched him.
“He was inspired by her in the way that she loved and cared for him and educated him to come back to his hometown and to create schools that really mirrored that type of experience that he got, and he will not settle for things that give kids less of an opportunity than they deserve,” she said.
Not all charter school advocates, however, are taking the story line in stride.
“It’s pathetic when fewer than 20% of Philadelphia students can even read, write or spell at grade level that there’s a show on television that has the nerve to criticize the schools that succeed, and the people that help them,” Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform, tweeted earlier this month.
“This has TEACHERS UNION written all over it,” she added, prompting the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to respond that it “has no involvement in writing or production of the incredible @AbbottElemABC.”
In another tweet last week, Allen said that Quinta Brunson, “Abbott Elementary’s” creator and star, “is from West Philly and attended charter schools her entire education.”
“She reportedly loved it at the time, heaped praise on it. Once upon a time. Guess money talks,” Allen said.
Brunson replied in a tweet that Allen is “wrong and bad at research.”
“I only attended a charter for high school. My public elementary school was transitioned to charter over a decade after I left. I did love my high school. That school is now defunct- which happens to charters often,” she said.
ABC declined multiple requests for comment from The Hill.
For the series, it all came to a head in the most recent episode, which saw the Abbott faculty band together with a festival and a petition to defend their turf, rallying parents and the rest of the community behind keeping the school out of Legendary’s hands. With three episodes left this season, it remains to be seen if Legendary has been completely vanquished or will again rear its head.
“Abbott Elementary’ resonates with educators and parents across the country because it accurately and humorously depicts the real situation in America’s public schools,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle.
“It discusses the real challenges our public schools face, including the lack of funding and resources, and how for-profit charters and vouchers divert funding out of our public schools,” Pringle added.
Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says that TV “comedies have dealt with major political issues” since the 1970s, but what makes “Abbott” interesting is “you’ve got this popular show” essentially serving as “a delivery system for information” on a topic that many people don’t know much about.
“We can’t, however, expect it to do this issue with all of its nuance, just like you’re not going to watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ if you want to learn … how to do emergency surgery,” Thompson said.
But, in his opinion, “it’s done a pretty noble job of dealing with this subject,” albeit from a very particular perspective.
Thompson said “Abbott Elementary” is “so earnest, and it’s so sincere, that even for those who disagree, it’s a lot harder show to hate on.”
Veney, of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, may or may not agree there, but she does not appear to have lost her sense of humor on the subject. At the end of the day, she points out, it is just a TV show.
“There is satire, there is poking fun at it. And I think it’s — it’s not healthy for us to always take ourselves too, too seriously,” she said.
— Judy Kurtz contributed.