"Parenthood" and the charter school dream

"Parenthood's" Kristina Braverman of Berkeley, CA takes up a cause New Yorkers are becoming all too familiar with

Published March 11, 2014 8:53PM (EDT)

Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman in "Parenthood."         (NBC/Colleen Hayes)
Monica Potter as Kristina Braverman in "Parenthood." (NBC/Colleen Hayes)

This season on “Parenthood,” as a bold and arguably impulsive response to their autistic teenage son’s struggles, fictional parents Adam and Kristina Braverman decide to open a charter school for children with special needs. The “Parenthood” Wiki describes Kristina Braverman as “a wise, and quietly forceful woman who loves her husband and children deeply and with incredible strength.” A cancer survivor, Kristina is resilient, proactive, and – amidst an admittedly selfish and self-absorbed cast of characters – known for her noble causes. Early in the season, she ran for mayor of Berkeley on an education platform and, although she did not win, ended up as some sort of community counselor and/or advocate for parents’ rights.

In recent years, films like “Waiting for Superman” and “Won’t Back Down” have painted the ascendance of the charter school as the panacea for the perceived failings of America’s current educational system. (“The Lottery” was, perhaps, a bit more even-handed in its approach to the examination of this shift away from the established public school structure.) Certainly, at the time that this season of “Parenthood” was conceived, it would have made perfect sense to write a Kristina Braverman that takes up charter schools as her latest crusade. Ever since her son Max disrupted his first class, falling under the mocking glare of his peers and the helpless gaze of his teachers, Kristina has been television’s most sympathetic symbol of a nationwide cry for education reform. Despite the fact that Max’s issues are specific to his condition, in recent episodes his long-suffering super-mom has taken to rattling her saber for anyone whose child is underperforming in a traditional classroom setting.

However, in light of the recent controversy around newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to approve 14 out of 17 charter schools for co-location inside traditional city school buildings, Kristina’s call to action bears closer inspection. Charter school officials and a great number of parents have chosen to take de Blasio’s decision to omit a few charters as a direct attack against education reform -- and children, for that matter -- staging a surprise protest and even slapping him with a lawsuit. But, as several news sources have suggested at length, such ire is the result of a rather single-minded way of regarding a fairly complicated situation. There is most definitely a downside to charter schools, especially when they are occupying the same space as traditional, possibly overcrowded schools already struggling to provide quality education for their students.

Lovable and inspiring as they are, the Bravermans are unapologetically white-bread, if not WASP-y, liberals. While much fuss has been made over their financial straits from season to season, the greatest strains on their pockets have come as by-products of enviable, rarified endeavors such as running for mayor, opening businesses, starting boutique record labels and otherwise pursuing their dreams. In short, though founding a well-intentioned charter school may sound like a good idea, it’s quite possible that the 40-something Bravermans could err on the side of blind privilege.

Enter Mr. Knight, a charming and handsome young teacher who, at the beginning of last week’s episode, Kristina designated as the focus of her frustrations. If Max, who has been slowly becoming more socially adjusted, isn’t doing well in class these days, it must be the fault of this backward-thinking, noncommittal individual. In a none-too-shocking twist, Knight turns out to be just the opposite: a progressive, endearingly "unconventional," highly informed educator with strong theories on reform. As such, he responsibly takes a brief moment to voice certain reservations about Kristina’s as yet loosely formed dream:

“Charter schools are tough. There’s a lot of red tape. Honestly, a lot of times they just don’t last. A parent will start a charter school for their own kid. The kid graduates, the parents lose interest, and the school falls apart.”

As New Yorkers with and without kids are learning with every day that de Blasio’s battle proceeds, there are many more issues involved in this type of school reform – none of which factors into this scenario. All that matters here is that Kristina and Adam Braverman are too good a parenting team to start a vanity project and let it fall into neglect after it has fulfilled its usefulness to them. At the end of the episode, the Bravermans re-approach Mr. Knight and ask him to join their cause and help them fashion their new school’s bound-to-be-awesome curriculum. He agrees, of course, with no objections. Kristina didn’t get to be mayor, but in this fictional world where right is right and causes are not so fraught with pesky details, I seriously doubt that the guy who did win will stand in her way when it comes to her son.

(The Bravermans' crusade continues this Thursday night on NBC.)



By Neil Drumming

Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.

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