Like It or Not, Matt Damon Has a Relatively Nuanced Perspective on Charter Schools

Mickey Muldoon

In case it needs reiterating, Matt Damon is actually a pretty smart guy. He holds a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He went to Harvard. He produces documentary films. He volunteers and donates to whole host of NGOs and non-profits. Sure, he's no authority of education, but he's probably the kind of person worth at least giving the benefit of the doubt.

So I was pretty disturbed by a couple of vindictive and downright insulting critiques of Damon that I found in my inbox last week, responding to his appearance at the ?Save our Schools? rally in Washington:

  • A New York Daily News headline: ?Matt Damon would deny charter school students education alternatives he had as a child.?
  • Whitney Tilson's blast email: ?Matt Damon gave a hugely dopey and hypocritical speech.?

Now, the Daily News article (all 90 words of it) takes two of Damon's unrelated comments egregiously out of context, with no substantive attribution. Moreover, as far as I can tell, Matt Damon isn't even unilaterally opposed to charters! Here's what he did say: ?It's a big question ? there are great charters and there are lousy charters ? they don't necessarily perform better than public schools.?

Even the most fervent charter advocate ? say, Whitney Tilson ? wouldn't disagree with Damon's balanced statement. So why is he ?hugely dopey??

And then, in a Gotham Schools interview, Damon actually showed a whole lot of subtlety in his understanding of the complication of ?co-location? ? where charter schools and district schools share facilities. Here are some excerpts:

The co-location thing is a problem, and that's starting to drive a wedge in the community ? I have a friend at a charter school in Harlem ? at Thanksgiving, turkeys with all the trimmings were handed out to the charter families in front of the other families ? Now, obviously, somebody funding this charter school went, like, ?you know, we gotta give these guys some Thanksgiving turkeys,? and that's a wonderful thing to do, but in its application, it's actually causing a problem.

This is a completely valid point. It's a great blessing that some charters have significant philanthropic backing, but it's also true that that does create some resentment among those kids and families who don't get the same backing ? especially when they occupy the same facilities. Perhaps that's a price we're willing to pay for wider school choice. But it's absolutely worth pointing out.

So here's a final thought on Damongate: at the end of the day, Matt Damon is simply a wealthy and relatively intelligent Hollywood actor with a pet social issue and no professional or financial stake in education reform whatsoever. At a time when almost every other major voice on education reform has a direct professional connection to one of a small number of major education philanthropies, or to a teachers union, we should actually respect the smart, independent voices in this debate, not insult them.

- Mickey Muldoon

Note: Mickey Muldoon, a staff assistant at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute from 2009-2010, is a computer science graduate student at Brooklyn College and previously worked at the New York City Department of Education.

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