This week, the ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary" attacked charter schools, a popular choice for families eager to escape troubled government-run public schools.
In Wednesday's episode, "Festival," the fictional founder of a charter school alternative to Philadelphia's failing public schools is portrayed as a villain.
The episode begins with the announcement that Legendary Charter Schools, founded by Draemond Winding (Leslie Odom, Jr.), has petitioned the school board to takeover Abbott Elementary.
Charter schools receive public financing but are privately run, avoiding many of the bureaucratic nightmares endemic to government-run school systems.
Earlier this season, Abbott teachers had snuck into a Legendary Charter School down the road from them, Addison Elementary. They envied Addison's fresh paint and asbestos-free hallways because bureaucratic red tape consistently prevents Abbott from getting necessary improvements in its building.
Despite envying Addison, the Abbott Elementary teachers are upset at the prospect of going charter. Once Legendary takes over, some of the teachers may lose their jobs.
They also learned in a previous episode that an Abbott student was expelled from Addison for failing to meet the school's minimum academic requirements.
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The Abbott teachers try to get parents to sign a petition against Legendary, but the parents are uninterested in discussing it.
Feeling desperate, the teachers and their principal, Ava (Janelle James), come up with an idea to "trick" parents into signing the petition. Since most parents don't come to the school's annual open house, the school turns the open house into a festival instead and has parents sign the petition without explaining it.
Ava, who is notorious for her cons as a principal, falsely advertises that popular rapper Jazmine Sullivan will be performing for parents. At the last minute, a teacher gets a fictional local rapper to perform instead.
Discovering the trick to get signatures, Dreamond Winding arrives at the festival and announces what the teachers are doing.
Tariq: Did y'all get a youth pastor to do stand-up during my set? What's going on? [Laughter]
Winding: Good evening, everyone. I'm Draemond Winding from Legendary Schools, and I'm sorry to say you're being lied to. The petition that's circulating this evening is nothing more than a promise to hold your children back. [Crowd gasps] These teachers are afraid of change. They want to keep this place tore up from the floor up.
Melissa: Okay, just give me the signal.
Winding: But I want to turn it into a beautiful, new Legendary property.
Parent #1: Yo, I just walked around this school. This place looks alright to me.
Winding: But we can do better. We will do better.
Parent #1: I heard those Legendary Schools do look fresh and new. And we can bring that here. The truth is Abbott is failing.
Parent #2: I haven't been here all year, but they're making race cars, doing goofy murals and fun stuff here.
Winding: They do the best with what they have. I went to Abbott. The great Mrs. Howard was my teacher, and she gave me so much. Then I struggled until I found my way into a charter school. Folks, you talk to any parent from Addington --
Parent #3: My kid went to Addington, and you kicked him out. [ Crowd gasps]
Winding: No, we don't -- we don't kick kids out. We encourage a small few to explore other educational opportunities.
Parent #3: Yeah, by kicking them out.
Winding: I want to focus on the future. This place is going to get a full and complete facelift. We are going to hire the best and brightest teachers.
Parent #4: What about the teachers we have here now? What you gonna do? You gonna fire Mrs. Howard? Huh?
Winding: No, not Mrs. Howard. No.
Parent #5: Oh, yeah? Then who?
Winding: If your child becomes a student at Legendary Charter, you will s--
Parent #6: If? Wait, wait, wait. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. My kid might not even get to go here?
Winding: We employ a lottery system to ensure equality.
Tariq: Hold on, hold on, hold on. I play the lottery every single day, and I never win. This man is playing the Powerball with our kids! [Indistinct shouting]
Winding: The reality is Legendary has resources Abbott just does not.
Parent #4: Then why don't you spend that money on Abbott? Help us make this school better, since you care so much. [Cheers and applause]
Janine: See, I told you our community would step up.
Gregory: I guess they know more about this stuff than we thought.
Melissa: Yeah, no. What they know is a phony when they see one.
Winding: Yeah. Folks, listen. What -- What I --
Students: Man, get out of here with that nut-ass suit. [Laughter]
Tariq: Yeah. [Laughter continues] Go on somewhere.
Auditorium: Yeah, yeah. Get them all. Get 'em out of here. Bye! Get 'em out of here. Yeah. Get 'em out of here. [Rapping] ♪ Abbott on Abbott on Abbott ♪ ♪ Abbott on Abbott on Abbott ♪ ♪ Abbott on Abbott on Abbott ♪
There is so much to unpack from this scene. First and foremost, public school systems like Abbott receive an enormous amount of per pupil funding. They are not lacking resources, as one parent presumes. The resources are mismanaged through government and teacher union inefficiency and malfeasance.
Furthermore, why is the parent of the expelled student never concerned with her son's poor academic performance? Does she ever wonder how her son can coast through Abbott, but not last for even a brief period at Addison? Why is the charter school to blame for that?
While "Abbott Elementary" consistently acknowledges certain problems plaguing low-income public schools, such as district mismanagement and parental disengagement, it still showcases a generally positive and sanitized version of an underperforming Philadelphia public school.
The show is a light-hearted sitcom and cannot present authentic levels of violence and dysfunction that actually exist in Philadelphia's government schools. Showing that harsher truth would be too dark.
If it did show that painful reality, a character like Draemond would be a hero. Anybody willing and able to offer an alternative for children to get out of a broken and dangerous system would naturally be a role model. If anything, the parents would be encouraging him to turn every public school into a charter, as he says he wants to do.
Anybody with personal experience in troubled inner-city schools (I tutored in one for nine months) has to suspend disbelief when watching "Abbott Elementary." One can only enjoy the show by understanding that it's a highly filtered fiction, albeit an amusing one. Its attack on an alternative choice to failing schools should be taken with a grain of salt.
In showing outright contempt for the character of Draemond, "Festival" was also less funny than usual "Abbott Elementary" episodes. The series normally works because its tone is warm-hearted, not malicious.
Nasty dialogue in this episode, such as when the child yells "nut-ass suit" to adult applause is not typical for this sitcom. If the show has more inappropriate moments like that in upcoming episodes, it will lose the reason for its success.
Hopefully, that scene and this episode in general were a one-off and "Abbott Elementary" will return to a friendlier formula in the future.
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