Charter schools are incredibly contentious.
They serve about 7% of American students, but siphon away funding from traditional public schools serving the majority of the population.
They are rife with scandals: Many close suddenly without warning. They often hire teachers without certifications from accredited universities. Administrators have been known to buy yachts and expensive gifts with tax dollars meant to educate children. They cherry pick the easiest students to educate and kick out the most difficult.
And that just scratches the surface!
Why would you want to purposefully set your action adventure series there!?
That’s exactly what the CW has done with its new series Black Lightning.
The network released an extended description for the show today in an announcement for its fall schedule:
“Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is a man wrestling with a secret. As the father of two daughters and principal of a charter high school that also serves as a safe haven for young people in a New Orleans neighborhood overrun by gang violence, he is a hero to his community…”
To which I can’t help but wonder, “WHY!?”
Why, CW!? Why put your hero at the head of a charter school?
In the original DC comic book on which this television series is based, Pierce is a principal at Garfield High School in the fictional city of Metropolis.
When the writers moved the setting to New Orleans and made the hero a charter school principal, they were making purposeful changes to the mythology.
What does it add to the series with the inclusion of this extra detail?
Yes, Jefferson Pierce is African American. It’s about time we have more black super heroes. Marvel did an amazing job with its Netflix show based on Luke Cage, a character also created by writer Tony Isabella.
But charter schools are not uniquely black. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a moratorium on charter school expansion just last year. The national civil rights organization has been publically critical of charter schools’ impact on children of color since 2010.
Specifically, the resolution states:
“…the NAACP opposes the privatization of public schools and/or public subsidizing or funding of for-profit or charter schools…”
“…the NAACP calls for full funding and support of high quality free public education for all children…”
The resolution goes on to oppose tax breaks to support charter schools and calls for new legislation to increase charter school transparency. Moreover, charters should not be allowed to kick students out for disciplinary reasons.
Yet THIS is where the CW decides to set its Sci Fi/Fantasy series!?
Perhaps the writers wanted to place the action in historic New Orleans, a city that has had almost nothing but charter schools since Hurricane Katrina.
But this is far from a success story.
After one of the worst natural disasters to hit the US in decades, the state fired almost all of its public school teachers, disbanded almost all local public school districts and reopened them as charter schools. New Orleans is now the only nearly all charter school city in the country.
Though supporters claim that this has resulted in increased test scores and graduation rates, the city’s schools cannot honestly be described as having turned around.
The district is still the fourth lowest performing educational institution in the country. Moreover, when compared with traditional public school districts in the state and controlling for factors like race, ethnicity, and poverty, New Orleans charter school students do much worse academically. For instance, on eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—2 to 3 standard deviations.
These are the largest gaps between public and charter schools in the nation!
And that’s not all! Before becoming an all-charter district, the city had a substantial amount of teachers of color. Now they’re mostly gone.
This is where your escapist superhero fantasy is taking place?
New Orleans charter schools are notorious for strict discipline policies where students describe feeling like they’re in prison.
You want your hero to be a principal HERE!?
Teachers and parents describe feeling demoralized and ignored. They filed a federal civil rights complaint in 2014 and still pine for the community schools they experienced when they were children.
And this is where you’re shooting your action adventure series?
I can’t help but wonder why the CW would greenlight such an irresponsible drama.
Perhaps Black Lightning will fight to turn his nefarious charter school back into a traditional public institution with an elected school board, public meetings and sensible regulations.
Other than that, I cannot imagine why any sane television network would actively decide to champion school privatization.
In the original comic book, Pierce eventually was made Secretary of Education by President Lex Luthor. Perhaps the CW is drawing a parallel between their hero and our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
President Donald Trump certainly brings to mind the super-villain Luthor – except that Luthor is known for being an evil genius and Trump is only known for one of those things…
But why would you want to associate your superhero with the most unpopular Education Secretary in history. DeVos only got her position after a split Senate confirmation and a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence. She has been publicly booed at a graduation ceremony at an all black college where she spoke. Parents and protesters have physically stopped her from entering several schools.
You want us to associate your hero with THAT!?
Full disclosure, I love CW’s superhero line-up. The Flash is delightful Sci-Fi fun. Arrow is escapist vigilante justice. Supergirl is girl power drama. Legends of Tomorrow is time travel fun.
But what the heck will Black Lightning be!?
Moreover, I loved Netflix’s Luke Cage. I think it was one of the best Marvel superhero series – something that transcended the genre and seemed to be addressing authentic social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, etc.
I can’t imagine how Black Lightning would do any of that.
Having a political subtext can elevate a TV show and put it in the center of the cultural zeitgeist. But it has to be done with sensitivity and intelligence.
Having CW’s hero be a charter school principal is a ham-handed nod to school privatizers and equity managers. Audiences want someone who fights for the underdog – not investment bankers.
I just don’t get it, CW.