Public School Students are Being Erased From TV, Movies and Other Media



Ninety percent of America’s students go to public schools.


But you wouldn’t know that if you opened a book, turned on the TV or went to a movie.


The media is engaged in a disinformation campaign erasing public schools and public school students from our entertainments.


It’s another way marketing and advertising is forced down our throats and into our leisure hours.


Not only do the multi-billion dollar corporations who fund these entertainments want to convince us we need this pill, that appliance, those technological doo-hickeys — they need to cajole and inveigle us that we need school privatization, too.


And what better way to do that than to give us heroes that  – what-do-you-know – just happen to go to charter, voucher and private schools?


No one takes Betsy DeVos, the billionaire heiress who bought her position as education secretary to tear down public schools, seriously. But we certainly do when it comes to Hollywood, the Boob Tube and Young Adult literature.


Take Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino Spiderman, who just made his big screen debut in Marvel’s “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.”


It’s refreshing to see the iconic Spideysuite worn by a character of color, but why change his alma mater, too?


The original webslinger, Peter Parker, was an everyperson teen who went to a public school. But Morales goes to a private school in the movie and a charter school in the comic books on which the film is loosely based.



Then we have “The Kid Who Would Be King” a modern day retelling of the King Arthur legend. In the film, Alex finds Excalibur and becomes king – while attending a British academy, the U.K.’s version of an American charter school.


And let’s not forget “The Hate U Give.” In both the book and the movie, the protagonist, 16-year-old African American Starr Carter, deals with a white police officer murdering her black friend. And her struggle is worsened by the incomprehension she meets at her mostly white, privileged private school.


Why are all these stories taking place where a tiny sliver of kids are educated?


What happened to all the public school students?


It’s not like privatized education has ever been starving for representation in the mass media.


If anything, private schools have historically been overrepresented – Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Dead Poets Society, Catcher in the Rye, etc.


At least in the past you could count on the default setting for kids to be public school. Unless it was an integral part of the plot, it was just assumed that everyday kids went to everyday public schools.


John Travolta and Olivia Newton John dreamed of those summer nights, but they went to Rydell High.


Molly Ringwald and the rest of the Breakfast Club attended Saturday detention, but during the week they were in class at Shermer High.


Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy and co. fought off vampires, but they had homework at Sunnydale High.


Even Bella Swann navigated her vampire-werewolf love triangle at Forks High!


But today’s fictional teens wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those traditional institutions.



And nothing could be more unrealistic!



We’re whitewashing the reality to make America’s children and parents feel deficient for the schools they actually attend and – for the most part – are quite satisfied with.



It’s not about representation for the 10 percent enrolled in privatized schools. It’s about expanding the market to get more children and families to abandon public schools and pony up the dough (or siphon off the taxes) to enroll in these institutions, too.


Or at least TRY to enroll.









Back in 2011, when writer Brian Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli created Morales for Marvel comics, he was a reaction to the election of Barack Obama. As such, even his schooling had to reflect that.


In Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, he is shown winning the last spot in a charter school lottery to enroll in Brooklyn Visions Academy.



The comic book panels mirror almost frame-for-frame the school privatization propaganda film “Waiting for Superman.” Pro-charter school Obama becomes pro-privatization Spider-man.





It’s almost like the big corporations who own the super heroes can’t tell who the good guys and the bad guys are anymore.


Here we have an American icon hawking a solution to child education that increases segregation, does away with duly-elected school boards, does away with the kinds of regulations that protect kids’ rights and instead allows unscrupulous charter operators to reduce services for children and pocket the difference.


It’s like watching Mickey Mouse explain how your folks should invest all their money with Bernie Madoff.


For some reason, in the movie version Morales’ charter school is rewritten as a private school for smart kids. I wonder why they made the change. It’s almost like there’s no appreciable difference between private schools and charter schools. And there isn’t!






Speaking of which, let’s examine the strange case of “The Kid Who Would be King.” The movie is technically not out yet, so it’s hard to see if it will make much use of its apparent Academy setting.


However, the trailer includes lots of shots of kids in traditional prep school dress with a stylized formal crest on blazers and pants. It almost seems like the setting is little more than an excuse to embrace a certain aesthetic in the costumes more than a plot point.


Or perhaps the marketing department just wants moviegoers to associate the film with the Harry Potter movies.


After all, Hogwarts is the ultimate in quasi-privatization. Special kids go to a special school where they are taught special classes. It’s never quite clear how it’s all paid for, though the kids do have to buy their own supplies.



Would “The Kid Who Would Be King” be any better if the kids in it went to public schools? They certainly would be more relatable to the average child.


First conceived in the early 2000s, British academies are not bound by national rules for staffing and curriculum, and receive more money from the government for administration while reducing funding to the traditional schools nearby.  However, according to a new peer-reviewed study by the London School of Economics, primary academies have not been able to meet the promise of increasing test scores.


The authors conclude:


“The English government has radically restructured its school system under an assumption that academisation delivers benefits to schools and students. There is neither any sign of a positive effect nor any suggestion that benefits might be increasing with years of exposure. If anything, the opposite is the case.”


Oh whatever! The blazers look nice!





And that brings me to “The Hate U Give.”



Starr’s private school does at least seem to be important to the plot. After her best friend is gunned down by a gangbanger, a 10-year-old Starr is sent to Williamson Prep, a private school in the white suburbs. The family remains in the neighborhood and even takes great pride in living among other black people. But for some reason the idea of public school and the trauma of this event are entwined in their minds. They want more for Starr than just a public school experience.


Consider this bit of narration:


“The high school is where you go to get jumped, high or pregnant. We don’t go there. Williamson is another world. So when I’m here, I’m Starr version 2. Basically Williamson Starr doesn’t give anyone a reason to call her ghetto. And I hate myself for doing it.”



Years later, she’s one of very few African American students at the private school. When another black friend is subsequently murdered by the police before her eyes during a traffic stop, her white privileged classmates don’t understand what she’s going through.


I wonder if things would have been different at a public school. I wonder if by enrolling her in private school her parents hadn’t taken away the kind of support system she could have used to help deal with the tragedy.


Starr overcomes it all, and symbolically pulls a “Rest in Peace Khalil” T-shirt over her school uniform signaling her refusal to be a divided person any longer. It might have been even stronger had she re-enrolled in her public school, too.



Let me be clear: I’m not saying these are bad movies, books or comics. I actually quite like most of them. But I wonder if most people realize that when they consume this stuff they’re getting something a little extra with their entertainment – corporate propaganda.


It doesn’t seem to be an accident that so few schools are being so overrepresented in the mass media.


The global conglomerates are always looking for a way to make a buck, and product placement has always been a surefire way to do it.


Unfortunately, such underhand tricks can have a large impact on the cultural landscape.


If we continue to be bombarded by unsubstantiated images of public schools not being good enough and privatized education as the savior for our children, we will lose our system of public education.


Schools will no longer be funded by tax dollars. Parents will have to pay for them out of their own pockets.


At very least this will result in an even more stratified education system where wealth not only buys comfort and resources but knowledge, as well.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!


39 thoughts on “Public School Students are Being Erased From TV, Movies and Other Media

  1. It’s not just schools. Advertisers know fully well that most people are not surprising family members with new cars sitting in the driveway with big bows on them at Christmas. Those ads are not directed at most of us, they’re aimed more at the 1%. We just assume after growing up watching commercials and tv shows in the eras when wealth was more evenly distributed that they’re still meant for us. It’s a sad truth most of us don’t realize.

    Writers of tv shows and movies don’t really care about reflecting reality. In fact, they’d rather we prefer their version. Haven’t escapist tv shows and movies always been that way?

    And if you think about it, there are some terrible conditions in some schools that Miles Morales did get to escape. That’s not the fault of teachers, however. It’s an economic issue. We’re supposed to prefer to go to the schools the rich attend, just as we’re supposed to prefer to be like the people we see on the screen. Is there a conspiracy against public education perpetrated by the media? Probably, there has been a concerted prejudice against public education for decades, some of which has been earned, some unfairly burdened.

    But then showing reality in the classroom has never been an issue with the entertainment industry. Ever. Remember those shows where the bell always conveniently rings at the end of a scene? Those classes could only have been ten minutes long, tops. Writers often work out their grudges or stereotype us, but they do that with a lot of professions. They never, ever get it right. They don’t live in our world.

    Those shows don’t bother me much. What does is propaganda dressed up to be documentaries, like “Waiting for Superman”.


    • Thanks for commenting, Thomas. I like your examples of propaganda in advertising and how far from reality the writing has always been in TV land. I guess my point is not to underestimate how powerful the stories we tell are. They form our preconceptions, our very concepts of normality. That has a huge impact on policy and the lives of everyday folks. I just hope to make people more aware of the lies they’re being fed along with their entertainments.


  2. This article should be considered as a warning sign for all of us who care for public education. I welcome the light shed on the favoritism of charter schools in these movies. This is yet another wedge that separates firmly us and them in the eroded world of public education! The few and selected good ones and the many, common, lesser ones. They are not necessarily opponents, but indeed too different to blend. On one side, a selection from where anyone may dream and aspire to be winners, even heroes. On the other side the mass from where dreamers struggle and are supposed to settle and be grateful for what the outcome, or perhaps become martyrs.
    For the elite, this dichotomy is a necessary component to keep control of everything, while continue unnoticed. And the show business using private schools and now charters as strategic scenarios for inducing the new set of values and attitudes performs a discreet but effective job to cementing it. The chosen ones are to be admired. The rest will spend a fair amount of time wishing they were among the selected.
    Never mind the rigged system created to favor them, the numerous cases of cheating, the nepotism exposed over the years, the list of abuses, or the fabricated image of charter schools. These products consumed by masses present charter schools as above public schools and right there with private schools. Just being in one awards the status of “not like the rest”.
    More than ever, public schools need to be rescued from the destructive forces of privatization. With the kind of massive propaganda demoting even more our public schools, it will take no more than one generation to desert public schools for good. A serious pro-public schools movement is needed to counter this publicity.

    Who wins, who loses, who cares?
    In solidarity,
    Sergio Flores

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve noticed this phenomenon for a number of years on television. Kids in shows about White working class families or families of color are frequently shown wearing traditional – plaids, boys in ties, etc. – parochial, and now charter, school uniforms. It seems intended to signal good parenting: “We might not have much money, or, we might be Black/Hispanic/Asian, but we want the best for our kids just like wealthier White suburban parents, and since we can’t afford private schools that means charter or Catholic schools. Parents with low standards, think ‘Speechless’ or ‘The Middle’ *settle* for public schools. It is an unspoken but pervasive message.


  4. Great piece! Thank you. My daughter and I watch the tv show, The Fosters. It’s a great family show for lots of reasons and I highly recommend it for families with teens. But nothing is perfect. The kids attend a charter school and one of their moms works there. There was a plot line where the board was going to vote for a school takeover by a for-profit. But mom saved the school from that! Yay? I guess it’s one of the “good” charter schools (argh!). You can be sure that I debriefed my 14-year-old about charters. (Although she has been listening to me rant for years about them, so it was really nothing new.:) I haven’t written a letter to the show yet, but maybe I will…(BTW, a spinoff about the two daughters leaving the nest is about to premiere. Should be good!)


  5. Q
    Schools will no longer be funded by tax dollars. Parents will have to pay for them out of their own pockets. END Q

    And just where do the tax dollars come from? From the pockets of parents (and others). There is no such thing as a free public school, and there is no such thing as a free public education.

    As the late William F. Buckley used to say “There is no such thing as a spontaneously generated Washington dollar”


    • Charles, parents would have to shoulder the entire cost. Now the cost is shared by the community. That would mean much less quality education for the poor and middle class than they get now.


      • Charles seems to be a fan of user pays the cost. The common good, and other people’s children, are a drag on the economy.
        Your juxtaposition of the comic panels and the Waiting for Superman film is really a winner that should be widely circulated.
        I am a long time student of so-called popular culture. I have returned more than once to Stuart Ewen’s books and others to see how carefully and fully the arts have been enlisted in the service of propaganda. Thank you for the post and to Diane for the link.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The parents (and the remainder of the community) are already paying the costs for public education. I have no children, but I wish to live in an educated society. Education is much more cost-effective that welfare or incarceration. And education is clear moral imperative.

        I strongly support school choice/vouchers/educational savings accounts. Parents/children deserve choices in how they educate their children.


      • @Laura: I am a “fan” of society bearing the costs for an educated society. Education is not only cost-effective, it is a clear moral imperative. Education is much more of a bargain, than welfare costs or incarceration. Sending kids to school, is cheaper than sending men to prison or having women on welfare.

        A robust economy depends on an educated workforce. BTW- I have no children, but I must live in a society populated with other people’s children. I would rather pay to educate them than incarcerate them.

        Liked by 1 person

      • cemab4y,
        80% of charter schools in Michigan are for-profit. I willingly pay for public education but I don’t want my community’s money to (1) leave the neighborhood and, line the pockets of the rich. The Bill Gates’ goal for charter schools is, “…brands on a large scale.” I don’t want the community’s money to (2) foment trouble in countries like Turkey, which is the allegation against Gulen-linked charter schools. Reports indicate Muslim schools are the fastest-growing segment. I don’t want the community’s money to (3) support mega church growth as they offer charter schools. The result undercuts religious diversity i.e. smaller denomination churches in my neighborhood won’t survive. I don’t want to (4) pay for a whole duplicate layer of bureaucracy to make sure charter schools are adhering to standards like equal access enrollment and all of the other mandates in place to assure legitimate education occurs. I don’t want (5) my government corrupted by campaign donations from charter operators (Ohioans bilked out of $1 bil.)
        The use of the word “choice” which denies the taxpayer the right to keep decision making and taxes local was language selected to distort the truth. If men like the Koch’s and Gates are successful, there is reason to think that the ultimate goal is to defund education.


  6. Yesterday I saw a film “Andy Hardy’s Private Secretary”, It is a love letter to public schools. What a film! It should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in public education.


  7. As a storyteller trying to create levels of conflict in and around a character’s life, maybe the writers are choosing charters schools because they suck; are more structured, intolerant, oppressive, and would create more external conflict, which is desirable.


  8. In addition to the erasure of public schools from the airwaves, T.V. programming began to present unions negatively.
    The movie, Norma Rae, would not be made today.


  9. Very interesting! We made a choice as a family to not watch television (and the vast majority of movies) about 5 or so years ago so I hadn’t picked up on this newer media trend. It seems charter schools are not the silver bullet they are claimed.

    What can we do though as parents when our public schools cannot or choose not to meet the needs of our children? What can we do when we are told by the administration, sorry your advanced child must take the same math as everyone else, the same language arts. We cannot accommodate you. Kids are individuals and the public schools should be a place for all students and all levels. When we moved here, the district told us it didn’t matter our oldest had finished geometry and advanced algebra. They would be put in 7th grade math and it didn’t matter our child wouldn’t learn new content for 2 years. They jettisoned all gifted classes. It is age segregation at its worst.

    Our area has seen a significant increase in private school enrollment since the district adopted these policies, especially for K-8. Wealthier families left the public schools. The rest of us cannot. We are left with few choices. Tutor after school or homeschool. Or perhaps, accept a very low educational standard forced on us by the workforce pipeline and bureaucrats. How can we fight this? In our local area, it is the public school we are battling.


    • Tracks, you fight it like you fight any other democracy – democratically. You organize. You go to school board meetings. You write letters to the paper. You raise holy Hell. And if your duly-elected representatives won’t listen, you run for office to replace them.

      I know it’s not easy. I know it’s a lot to ask. But democracy is not a spectator sport. The alternative they’re selling is to get rid of Democracy at a privatized school with an appointed board and closed door meetings. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.


      • Oh, I agree!

        My voice wasn’t loud enough to change our district policies. Hundreds of families’ voices weren’t loud enough. That doesn’t mean I am willing to give up. We will keep pushing against our district’s ill-formed policies. But I will not sacrifice my children’s education or future during the battle either. We will not accept a public education that does not educate.


    • Tracks, what is the cost in dollars for what you’d like the school to do special for your children?
      Schools are fiscal stewards for the communities’ tax dollars. They must defend to the people at-large the costs for special treatment for individual students. The more costly advantages that you want for your children may result in them contributing more in terms of success measures like GDP but that outcome can’t be predicted in advance so, it can’t be cited as a defense.
      Offering an example- Wall Streeters are highly intelligent but, they drag down GDP by an estimated 2% so, the workers in retail, in factories, restaurants, etc. have to labor much harder to overcome the drag of some of most promising former students.


      • Linda,

        I agree, the schools should be fiscal stewards and I appreciate your feedback. But shouldn’t schools to serve all students, not force students into one mold?

        The cost of ELL and Special Education are high but necessary, I am sure you would agree. Most states also have provisions for tracking and gifted students. Ours is one of very few in the country that isn’t serving the gifted. They used to just a few short years ago. They argue not from a fiscal standpoint but rather an equity one. It cost the district to remove tracking. They would rather have everyone exit middle school with exactly the same set of low skills. It is counter to our very nature as individuals. Kids have different interests and abilities. How many of our kids are sitting in class disengaged and bored because they aren’t learning? The worst outcome is that it is not the wealthier kids suffering. Their parents simply enroll them in private K-8 and many jump back to the public school for 9-12 where their kids fill up the advanced courses, especially math. The rest of our kids are left behind. Parents who do not pay for outside math classes at the CC or an accredited program for their kids cannot take calculus unless they double up in their junior or senior year.

        I do not want special treatment for just my children. I want all children to have access to appropriate education, to be challenged wherever they are academically. Hopefully we will win over the district, eventually.

        I can understand the frustration with top earners but I think it is a mistake to compare those 1% with kids who happen to by academically advanced. Some are twice exceptional (my niece is autistic), some are just very passionate about a subject, some have advantages from the home, and some do not. Choosing not to educate our citizenry when we can and to the best level we can seems counter to the very essence of public education.


      • Tracks,
        My field is not education so please don’t attribute my comments to occupational bias. The articulated thoughts below are a lay person’s.
        Traditionally, there was an expectation that students in a class advanced together. There were important efficiencies that derived from that process. Smarter kids helped others or they independently read advanced books to stave off boredom. The teacher was available to answer advanced questions that the better students chose to generate. But, there wasn’t an expectation that the teacher would keep students challenged. The teacher’s charge was to make students proficient.
        Has it been found that (1) Current students wait for an authority to provide challenge rather than steering their own academic exploration? (2) Has it been found that individual students without gifted classes arrive in college with deficits so great that they can’t reasonably be overcome or, that their career selection is stymied by a lack of gifted classes?

        I recall describing a traditional viewpoint that was based on people developing compassion and a sense of obligation to help by witnessing others’ struggle, on a sense that individuals aren’t special, they are obligated to achieve and contribute to GDP based on their own initiative, schools were due respect as a gift citizens provided, a potential path to success. Schools were not an object of criticism because of their perceived deficits.


  10. The bias in scripts is similar to what is happening on college campuses. Frederick Hess of AEI and a Gates’ organization employee co-wrote an article in Philanthropy Roundtable, “Don’t Surrender the Academy”, which called upon the wealthy to use their money to get universities to instruct students the way the wealthy wanted. The co-writers recommended the scheme in preference to the rich’s predilection to “…blow up the ed schools.”

    On Jan. 22, is introducing a model policy to confront donor manipulation in higher education. UnKoch’s research is worth reading. Two recent articles are, “Advancing White Supremacy through Academic Strategy” and “The Federalist Society Takeover of the Public George Mason University Law School”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Are you sure of your premise? I don’t watch much TV or many movies, but the only movie I’ve seen in the past year featuring any kind of school was “Love, Simon” – Simon and his friends attend a public school. Also, I believe the TV shows Single Parents, Modern Family, The Conners and Fresh Off the Boat all feature public schools.

    I think the bigger issue is how schools in general – whether public, charter or private – are treated as jokes, but then, I don’t think that has changed much. I don’t think the schools in “Grease” or “The Breakfast Club” were exactly model educational establishments.


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