Once upon a time, Oprah Winfrey’s support for and praise of teachers was unwavering. She consistently recognized the teaching profession as one of the most important—and most difficult—in the world, and she showed her appreciation for teachers frequently on her show. She even claimed that teaching was her “calling.”
Unfortunately, the world learned in 2010 that even staunch supporters of educators can fall under the spell of so-called education reformers who claim that public schools and their teachers are failing.
On the day that she covered Waiting for Superman, Oprah invited Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and director Davis Guggenheim to discuss the “shocking state of our school system”—but nowhere on the panel were advocates of public education or seasoned educators. Viewers watched as Oprah’s guests painted vivid pictures of a failing American public school system–one that was rife with ineffective teachers and children who were “trapped” in figuratively-deplorable academic conditions.
It was as if the teachers Oprah had spent decades praising never existed at all.
On the same episode, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced his Startup Education $100 million pledge to Newark’s schools, and although the funds were reportedly donated to help “public” education, much of the money went toward the expansion of the city’s charter schools. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s DFER policies, as shortly after the grant announcement, Zuckerberg and Booker toured a KIPP charter school during what was undoubtedly a strategic PR opportunity. (Today, US News published a piece which details accusations that Booker mismanaged these funds.)
Oprah ended and qualified her hour-long public-education-bashing segment with a fleeting, 10-second remark: “Everybody knows I love good teachers, and there are so many thousands of you great ones in this country. So we’re not talking about you, if you’re a good teacher. So save your time getting upset.” And not to be outdone by any reformers, she announced the following day that she had chosen six charter schools to receive $1 million each in grants from her Angel Network.
And that was that.
Fast forward to 2013: on August 1st, Oprah hosted a fundraiser for Cory Booker on the very same night that the NAACP hosted a US Senate candidates’ forum, during which all the Democratic candidates (Booker, Pallone, Holt, and Oliver) for the party’s nomination were invited to discuss their positions on issues.
Given the choice between the two events, Booker chose the fundraiser:
Booker’s absence was glaring, and his opponents welcomed the opportunity to point it out. Even the President of the Newark NAACP quipped, “You know what would be nice? If he brought Oprah over here.”
No such luck. In true reformer style, Booker and Winfrey sent the message that making money is more important than substance and true, meaningful discussions of the issues.
In supporting Booker, Winfrey supports his reform agenda—one that favors vouchers and the expansion of charters, seeks to end teacher tenure, and advocates high stakes testing and teacher evaluation that depends on it. And though Oprah apparently claimed at the Booker fundraiser that she doesn’t typically support political candidates, she’s evidently so taken with his political persona that she was unable to keep her opinions—and money—out of the mix.
In the end, Booker’s policies will destroy public education as we know it and exaggerate the “educational apartheid” that he claims he wants to fix–and that Oprah, who grew up in extreme poverty–knows all too well.