In Abbott’s Battle of Traditional vs Charter, Real Students Lose


March 22, 2023

The toilets might not always work, scissors may be in short supply, and the occasional mice may run through the cafeteria, but despite its heavy satire, there’s something truly magical about the world created by the TV sitcom Abbott Elementary. America has fallen in love with the deeply caring, resourceful, and committed educators and staff of this fictitious Philadelphia public school.

Perhaps that’s why it has felt especially heartbreaking to see the ways in which Abbott Elementary has vilified public charter schools this season—forcing a false choice between traditional and charter public schools and reinforcing misperceptions about a public school model serving 3.7 million students nationwide. 

Spoiler alert – the storyline for season two pits Legendary Schools, a local public charter network, against Abbott—with problematic asides about public charter schools peppered throughout the season. Characters say that public charter schools see “scores not students,” hurt teachers, and even quip that the head of Legendary should be “somewhere shutting down an orphanage.”

These comments undermine the choices of parents and families and perpetuate stereotypes about public charter schools that fuel distrust and division. 

For more than two decades, parents–particularly Black and Latino parents and those from lower-income backgrounds—have demanded more public school options so that they have the opportunity to choose the best environment for their individual children. The privilege of having options has long existed for more affluent families who have the necessary resources to exercise public school choice by relocating to a different zip code. To say the least, other parents and families want that same level of choice when deciding upon their own children’s educational and social needs. 

In my family like most, education was always a priority. My parents emphasized time and again that a strong education opened doors and opportunities, and I was fortunate enough to be able to choose a public  high school that best met my academic needs—paving the way for me to get two masters degrees, including one in education. But too many families, particularly those in historically-marginalized communities, have been denied this chance. 

Thankfully, in New York and in other parts of the country, public charter schools have started to change that narrative and that’s why parents are clamoring for more of them. In New York City, 141,000 students attend public charter schools—more than 80% of whom are considered economically disadvantaged. Recent polling from Morning Consult and my organization, Democrats for Education Reform NY, found that 64% of parents support raising the arbitrary cap so that they can create more public charter school seats in the city. 

Most importantly, New York’s public charter schools have been effective in helping to raise student achievement. New York City’s public charters must adhere to strict State authorization standards, or they risk being closed.  In fact, 2022 test scores show that students attending public charter schools continue to outperform state averages in math and reading.

Recently, our organization joined with over 500 parents, school leaders, students, and advocates to rally at City Hall in support of more high quality charter schools for New York students. The event reflected how instrumental public charter schools have been in building fruitful futures for New York students and families, and how their successes have inspired elected officials. 

When public schools are pitted against one another—even in fiction—our students are always the losers. I applaud Abbott for celebrating excellent educators as the everyday heroes that they are, but I hope the writers can find a new antagonist that won’t stigmatize real world students and families. 

Jacquelyn Martell is the Executive Director for DFER New York.