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John Oliver's ‘Last Week Tonight’ Segment Draws Attention to Inequity in Education

John Oliver's ‘Last Week Tonight’ Segment Draws Attention to Inequity in Education

HBO funny-man John Oliver used his weekly Sunday night show ‘Last Week Tonight’ to bring national attention to the inequity issues in education, specifically reminding viewers that even though the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, segregation in U.S. schools still exists today.

In 2011, Oliver explained, nearly 7,000 schools had one percent or less white children. That number is almost triple what it was in 1988, proving that despite popular belief, segregation is not decreasing as society grows more diverse.

Oliver also touched on something education advocates have been working to correct for decades—the achievement gap between white and minority students that exists largely due to unequal access to quality resources, including highly effective teachers.

Indeed, schools occupied by mostly minority students typically have less funding opportunities, resulting in everything from outdated textbooks, second-hand technology and bare bones course offerings. In worst case scenarios, minority students have no access to college prep programs, ultimately having a significant impact on their life-long achievement.

Improving the achievement of minority students is as easy, Oliver says, as bringing them into better, desegregated schools.

"Getting to attend a good, middle class school can be transformative. Berkley professor Robert Johnson studied black siblings where one went to a desegregated school and the other didn’t. Not only did those exposed to more years of desegregation fair better, their kids did too.”

Further, the study found that black children exposed to more years of desegregation were more likely to graduate and less likely to be incarcerated.

"I find that, for blacks, school desegregation significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status; desegregation had no effects on whites across each of these outcomes,” said Johnson in his working paper "Long-Run Impacts of School Desegregation and School Quality on Adult Attainments.

"The results suggest that the mechanisms through which school desegregation led to beneficial adult attainment outcomes for blacks include improvement in access to school resources reflected in reductions in class size and increases in per-pupil spending,” he said. 

Oliver urged his viewers to be proactive: "Remember, if you just assign kids to their neighborhood schools and their neighborhoods are segregated, you will have a segregated school,” he said.

He went on to sufficiently sum up the average education advocate’s argument in his closing statement: "While this always gets framed as an issue about parents and their children, it's actually about adults and everybody, because kids grow up, and those little doctors, soldiers, police officers and superheroes asking you for candy tomorrow night [Halloween], why, in a decade or so, they might be actual doctors, soldiers, police officers and assistant directors of human resources.”

The segment comes just a week before the general election, an election that has seen a campaign period where education issues have been largely exempt from.

Republican candidate Donald Trump argued recently that the lack of national school choice opportunities is the “new civil rights issue” of our time and announced a $20 billion federal commitment to offer school choice opportunities to minority communities.

However, 50 African American and social justice advocacy groups have spoken out against the facade of school choice through an influx of charter and private schools, arguing that charter schools increase segregation even more.

"If charter schools were all about education for all students, you would find them in poor white neighborhoods, in rural areas, in suburbs. But you don’t,” said Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union to U.S. News.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has remained relatively mum about her stance on charter schools and the like, but has said she would commit $2 billion to fix the school-to-prison pipeline by investing in research to support restorative justice disciplinary systems and other in-school factors.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor



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