Here's what 'Abbott Elementary' and Quinta Brunson get wrong about charter schools

I am reluctantly entering the public conversation about three things I’m very fond of: charter schools, TV sitcom "Abbott Elementary" and the show’s star, Quinta Brunson.

Over the course of the latest season, charter schools have been mentioned several times. Often, the show's mischaracterizations of these unique public schools have made me raise an eyebrow because people might learn about charters only by watching "Abbott." But in fairness, there also have been a lot of mischaracterizations about traditional public schools.

And, of course, it's not real life. It is a TV comedy. And that’s kind of what they do – make us laugh by poking fun at things, people and issues through exaggerations and caricatures.

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Yet, as a senior Black leader at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, I know in real life that 1 in 3 students in Philadelphia attends a charter school. And I know that many of these kids’ life trajectories are forever changed because of that opportunity.

I also know that nationally, about 70% of charter students are Black and brown children and 60% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Their families do not want their kids' education determined by their ZIP codes.

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Charter schools are public schools. They are never private, there’s never a cost to attend and they are actually funded on average about 20% less than their district school counterparts. They are held to rigorous standards just like district schools, and subject to even greater accountability in exchange for the flexibilities they enjoy.

I know there is nothing that works like a high-quality charter school. These schools have proved what many people never thought possible. They can go into a community where students have been chronically underserved and turn student achievement around.

The ABC comedy "Abbott Elementary" criticized public charter schools in recent episodes.
The ABC comedy "Abbott Elementary" criticized public charter schools in recent episodes.

This is why I believe so much in charter schools, and why I am willing to fight for them. So, yes, I winced at the mischaracterizations in recent episodes of "Abbott Elementary."

Even so, I'm still a fan of "Abbott" and its creator, Quinta Brunson, a brilliant Black woman who has earned her way to create great television that is uniting so many around the issue of equitable educational opportunities for children.

How can I stay a fan? Because I know the difference between fact and fiction, between documentary and mockumentary.

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Although characterizations of district-led and charter schools have been in jest, they opened the door for a serious conversation about the lack of high-quality educational options available to many families. That’s really what we need to be talking about.

The recent “Abbott Elementary” episodes with the charter-school story line somehow have become the foundation for what purports to be legitimate national discourse about public schools.

If we look to "Abbott Elementary" for an actual take on public charter schools, must we also then believe that Janelle James’ brilliant portrayal of a sexually harassing, self-aggrandizing, hustler of a principal, Ava Coleman, is representative of all district school leaders? Of course not.

Quinta Brunson attended a charter high school

Brunson herself knows the nuance of the issue, as a graduate of a since-closed charter high school in Philadelphia, an experience she has said she loved.

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Last year, ABC and Brunson also partnered with Scholastic to host a free book fair for several schools in the United States, including Harrity Elementary in West Philadelphia, Brunson’s former elementary school that's now a Mastery charter.

What this discussion should ultimately come down to is how we can provide a high-quality public education for all children.

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Charter schools are neither villain nor panacea. And neither are district schools. Both are part of the larger public education community, and they both need our love and support.

Last month, a landmark court ruling in Pennsylvania settled a decade-old lawsuit and determined that low-income school districts across the state in places like Philadelphia had been historically underfunded. The court found the state’s educational financing plan unconstitutional. And if you think that’s bad, remember that on average, charter schools are educating students with even less money than district schools.

Debbie Veney is a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Debbie Veney is a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

It stings for one of the country’s most popular sitcoms to portray the work of charter schools in a way that doesn’t reflect who we are or what we do. But it’s a comedy, although the work we do to educate children in the real world is no joke.

In the end, if "Abbott" did become a charter school, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. It seems to have worked out well for Quinta Brunson’s elementary school.

Debbie Veney is a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: I love 'Abbott Elementary.' But it's wrong about charter schools.