How “Abbott Elementary” Takes On the Charter-School Movement

Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of the Emmy-winning ABC hit “Abbott Elementary,” has said in interviews that she always intended for it to be a family-friendly network show. She wanted “Abbott,” a comedy about teachers in an underfunded, predominately Black public school in Philadelphia, to be near-universally accessible, regardless of a viewer’s age or streaming options. What Brunson went on to achieve is as close to a monocultural television phenomenon as may be possible in the streaming era. Soon after it premièred, in December, 2021, “Abbott” was earning the fandom, institutional accolades, and cultural caché usually reserved for premium-cable shows—and the network-size ratings to go with them.

“Abbott,” now nearing the end of its second season, has always been a civic-minded endeavor, and, as Brunson’s clout and reach has expanded, the show’s brand of political commentary has only sharpened. (Spoilers abound from here onward.) Strikingly, a recent multi-episode arc presented to a mass audience an artful, sustained, and hilarious polemic against the privatization of public schools—specifically, against the influence of charter schools, which receive public financing but are privately run. Charter schools are a pet cause of a number of prominent billionaires, yet, according to some polling, most Americans don’t really know what they are. “Abbott Elementary” has been telling them.

“Abbott” announces its new nemesis in the Season 2 première. A group of Abbott’s highest-performing third-grade students leave for Addington, a gleaming charter school down the street; as a result, Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) has to teach the remaining third graders alongside her second graders, causing overcrowding and chaos. In the next episode, Abbott’s teachers get a look inside Addington, which—despite being a taxpayer-funded school in the same neighborhood—has everything Abbott doesn’t: functional air-conditioning, fresh-painted walls, new textbooks, French class, a computer lab, field trips, and ceilings that strike Janine (Brunson), another second-grade teacher, as strangely smooth—“because they don’t have asbestos,” Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) explains. After visiting Addington, Janine is inspired to give her own classroom a fresh coat of paint, but Abbott’s principal, Ava (Janelle James), shoots her down for bureaucratic reasons—public-school décor, Ava says, is the purview of “the Philadelphia Department of Education, Animal Shelters, and Traffic.”

Addington, which is part of a network called Legendary Charter Schools, is a taunting presence, a have to Abbott’s have-not. It becomes a more immediate threat later in the season, when Draemond Winding (Leslie Odom, Jr.), Legendary’s founder, vows that he will convert every public school in Philadelphia into a charter, and next up is Abbott. (Melissa’s vaguely mobbed-up sister, Kristen Marie [Lauren Weedman], who works at Addington, delivers the bad news as if Draemond has put a hit out on Abbott: “He’s set on turning youse guys charter.”) In a quasi-Oedipal twist, it is revealed that, thirty years ago, Draemond was a student in Barbara’s very first kindergarten class at Abbott. Barbara is the show’s devoutly Christian moral center, and, when she speaks with her former student, we get a dose of “Abbott”-style agitprop: “Draemond,” she says, “what you are doing hurts teachers like me.”

The show’s perspective on charter schools becomes all the more withering when Ava comes around to Barbara’s point of view. As Abbott’s principal, Ava mainly embodies public-sector incompetence and sloth. She once spent three thousand dollars of school funds to hang a sign of herself above Abbott’s front doors. Her typical workday involves live-streaming auctions of her “previously loved” clothing, watching “Love Island,” and sexually harassing Gregory (Tyler James Williams), the first-grade teacher who would have got the job as principal had Ava not blackmailed the superintendent. Although Ava acknowledges that Legendary is a “massive evil empire” akin to the Sith, she initially glimpses the makings of good flimflam in the charter-school concept. When Barbara says of charters, “They take our funding, not to mention the private money from wealthy donors with ulterior motives,” Ava is only intrigued: “Weird cash swirling around? Don’t threaten me with a good time!”

Over time, “Abbott” reveals that Ava does have a rough-hewn moral code when it comes to her students, whether she is getting uniforms or school supplies to kids who need them or training them to sell fund-raising candy at a markup to ladies from Barbara’s church. When Josh (Anthony Carr, Jr.), a student who left Abbott for Addington, is kicked out of his new school for subpar academic performance, Ava seems appalled by the school’s conduct, welcomes Josh back on the spot, and instantly switches sides on the charter-school debate. When Principal Ava Coleman is turning down weird cash, “Abbott Elementary” implies, you know that the cash must be weirder than most.

The first charter schools in Philadelphia opened in 1997, several years after Barbara would have taught Draemond’s kindergarten class. By 2019, more than a third of all students in publicly funded schools in Philadelphia were enrolled in charters. The growth is in spite of research showing that many charter schools perform about as well as—or worse—than the public schools that they drain of funding and resources. Of the nearly seven hundred million dollars in new funding that the Philadelphia school district received between 2015 and 2020, more than half went to charter schools. (The lopsided receipts owe largely to the state’s flawed funding formula, which overpays charter schools for providing special-education services.)

The local and national growth of charter schools has been propped up by lavish support from a center-to-right spectrum of billionaires with various, sometimes overlapping desires, which include lower taxes, fewer and weakened teachers’ unions, state funding for religious schools, and a more entrepreneurial approach to public education. Prominent advocates include Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family, Betsy DeVos, the late Eli Broad, and Jeff Yass, reportedly the richest man in Pennsylvania. When the “weird cash” episode of “Abbott Elementary” aired, viewers immediately speculated that Barbara was referring to Yass. Jeanne Allen, the director of Yass’s education foundation, was unamused, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that the line was a “gratuitous slap against people with wealth” and tweeting, “This has TEACHERS UNION written all over it.”

In 2016, Yass’s wife, Janine, a charter-school founder, wrote a letter of complaint to John Oliver after he aired a segment critical of charter schools; the letter read, in part, “I have been involved in education reform for over 15 years in the poor city of Philadelphia where over 40,000 children are on charter school waiting lists to escape the horrendous public school system.” The forty-thousand figure had already been debunked by the time her letter appeared (the actual number was unknown, according to a 2015 piece in the Notebook, later Chalkbeat Philadelphia). But there’s no doubt that charter schools are in high demand by families in Philadelphia, and it’s no wonder why. In February, a state-court judge wrote that students attending chronically underfunded public schools in Pennsylvania “are being deprived of equal protection of law.” One of the petitioners in the nearly decade-old lawsuit, a former student at a Philadelphia district school, described “mold in the lunchroom, leaks in the roof,” fountains that spouted “super white” water, and cold air blowing from the heaters in winter. An estimated seventy per cent of Philadelphia’s district schools contain asbestos, and at least three-quarters require lead-paint remediation.

Brunson is the daughter of a veteran public-school teacher in West Philadelphia, and “Abbott” doesn’t flinch from the decrepitude of the city’s education system. (For one thing, an out-of-date calendar hanging in Abbott’s main office covers up a hole in the wall that appears to be choked with asbestos.) But the show also dismantles the benevolent narrative of “escape” promulgated by the Yasses and other charter-school advocates—the notion that a public-school system cannot be rallied around and improved, only bled out and abandoned. “Abbott” grabs this idea around the neck in a conversation between Jacob (Chris Perfetti), who teaches history at Abbott, and Summer (Carolyn Gilroy), an Addington teacher who tries and fails to recruit Jacob to her school, where he’d be, she says, “with the brightest kids from the neighborhood,” “the cream of the crop from all over the city.” “We’re all about focussing on the kids who have the best chance of making it out,” Summer says. (“Out of what?” Jacob asks. He receives no answer.)

In this exchange, as when Addington offers a chance of “escape” to Josh and just as quickly rescinds it, “Abbott” is building a cogent, legally grounded argument against charter-school practices. According to Pennsylvania law, a charter school cannot discriminate “based on intellectual ability or athletic ability, measures of achievement or aptitude, status as a person with a disability, English language proficiency, or any other basis that would be illegal if used by a school district.” But, as Summer openly admits, these prohibitions are not reflected in charter schools’ student populations. In 2019, the Education Law Center found that Philadelphia’s district schools enrolled about five times as many students with intellectual disabilities as charters. They also enrolled twice as many autistic children and three times as many English-language learners and students experiencing homelessness. A 2016 report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies hypothesized that “some charter schools are artificially boosting their test scores or graduation rates by using harsh discipline to discourage lower-achieving youth from continuing to attend.”

“Abbott Elementary” has an exacting sense of local color—the Philly Flyers’ mascot Gritty comes to visit the school, Ava is dating the one-time 76er Andre Iguodala, Barbara has a little crush on the longtime news anchor Jim Gardner, etc. But the extent of graft and malfeasance in the relatively brief history of Philadelphia’s charter schools may be too sleazy a spectacle to provide fodder for a family show. A throng of charter-school founders and administrators in the city have pleaded guilty to fraud, embezzlement, and obstruction-of-justice charges in recent years. One defrauded his school of up to a million dollars, including more than seven hundred thousand to buy a building in the name of a sham nonprofit. Another, who later pleaded guilty to fraud, ran a charter school where, for a time, the cafeteria operated as a night club on weekends. (Admittedly, one might imagine Ava getting on board with this idea.)

Legendary’s Draemond Winding is not a con man, just an empty suit—Goliath with a sales pitch. With the clock ticking on Abbott’s charter-ization, Ava interviews for a job at Legendary, but she also decides to put on a festival at Abbott ostensibly headlined by the R. & B. star Jazmine Sullivan (whom Ava has very much not booked to come); parents arriving for the show will be “tricked” into signing a petition opposing Legendary. For the most part, Janine and her colleagues are temperamentally mismatched to such subterfuge. Luckily, Draemond crashes the party and does all their work for them—ironically, it’s the charter-school guy, in speaking for himself and his mission, who becomes the most effective delivery system for an anti-charter message.

Taking the stage to make a folksy appeal on behalf of Legendary, Draemond gets ethered by the Abbott Elementary parent community. They want to know why his money can’t go toward helping Abbott rather than destroying it. They’re upset that they don’t know which teachers would get fired under the Legendary regime, or whose kids would stay or go. (“We don’t kick kids out—we encourage a small few to explore other educational opportunities,” Draemond stammers.) Even Tariq (Zack Fox), Janine’s ne’er-do-well ex, can see right through the shtick when Draemond explains Legendary’s lottery-admissions process: “Hold on, hold on, hold on, I play the lottery every single day and I never win,” Tariq says. “This man is playing the Powerball with our kids!” ♦


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