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Charter High video finalist in $100K national contest


It would be hard to imagine the culturally sophisticated students at Indian River Charter High didn’t get some good laughs out of John Oliver’s recent bit on charter schools gone bad on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.”

If they did, it didn’t stop them from rising to the challenge when a school choice group offered a $100,000 prize to the best rebuttal to Oliver’s diss.

Last week, Charter found out its three-minute video placed in the top 10 of 250 entries nationwide and expects to find out by the end of this week whether it won the Center for Education Reform’s “Hey John Oliver! Back Off My Charter” contest.

School officials learned of the news in a video conference call with representatives of Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher, pro-charter and pro-online learning think tank based in Washington, D.C. that is supported largely by conservative family foundations.

On the line last Friday were the group’s founder and CEO, Jeanne Allen and Amy McGrath, vice-president of public affairs. They labeled Oliver’s comedic position statement “unfortunate, unfair and generally unhinged.”

While that last criticism would likely delight the former regular on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” Oliver did not slam all charters in his segment last August. On the contrary, he noted widespread, bipartisan support for the schools but delivered a cautionary tale about school privatization.

Oliver opens his segment with pro-charter sound bites from President Obama, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Bernie Sanders. He then goes on to point out that in Florida alone, 119 charter schools have closed since 2008, including 14 that didn’t make it through their first year.

One laugh line turned on a charter school operator in Fort Lauderdale who was jailed in July for allegedly funneling $35,000 in school board money to his own bank account, while students at his Ivy Academies were shuttled around on “daily field trips” because they had no permanent school buildings.

Oliver then puts forth a low-budget field trip concept: returning a $12 belt to Marshall’s.

Indian River Charter seized on that, and took a group shot in the parking lot of the discount chain located just down the street from the school.

Finalists were required to provide additional material expressing “why your kids, your families, your communities are better off at the charter school than the neighborhood school across town,” according to Allen.

“Your stories are authentic,” McGrath told the contest’s finalists. “It’s the whole idea of showing the country that Oliver was wrong.”

“We want you to show how charters are truly the most important public education reform since civil rights,” said Allen on the video conference call.
A decision will come at the end of this week. Allen said foundation representatives would present the prize in person – and urged schools to invite Oliver as well.