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Controversy Continues Over 'NewsHour' Report on Success Academies' Suspensions

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Earlier this month, longtime public TV education correspondent John Merrow told friends that he and his wife, Joan, would be drinking Champagne or "perhaps a nice Pinot Noir" as the "PBS NewsHour" aired his last story.

But that story, about student suspensions at the Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, may have caused indigestion for Merrow, the NewsHour, and the schools' founder and CEO, Eva Moskowitz, who called it "both factually inaccurate and the product of dishonest and unethical journalism."

Merrow, 74, had announced his retirement over the summer and arranged for his production company, Learning Matters Inc., to be taken over by the publisher of Education Week. The Success Academy story had been in the works long before that change, and it aired on the "NewsHour" on Oct. 12.

"The code of conduct [at Success Academies] runs six pages and identifies 65 infractions, from bullying and gambling to littering and failing to be in a ready-to-succeed position," Merrow says in the report. He highlights a student who was suspended multiple times before his mother withdrew him.

Merrow goes on to say that "our sources, including several public school principals, quite a few former Success Academy parents, and one person inside her organization, charge that is exactly what [Moskowitz] does, repeatedly suspend certain kids to push them out. However, none of these critics were willing to publicly confront Moskowitz."

"Well, the numbers just don't support that, John," Moskowitz tells him in an interview in the piece. "I mean, what you get is what you see, which is suspending kids doesn't lead to [a] high attrition rate. That is what the data shows."

Merrow concludes: "In fact, the attrition rate is at least twice that of another major charter network, KIPP. A Success Academy representative told [us] for every 100 new students, at least 10 leave before the year's out, most of them in the first few months. They are then replaced by students chosen from the waiting list."

A few days after the report ran, Merrow appeared on the NewsHour for a signoff interview with anchor Judy Woodruff. (The program also noted that its continuing coverage of education would include a new partnership with Education Week.)

But Moskowitz was not ready to raise a glass to Merrow. She fired off a lengthy letter to Woodruff complaining about Merrow's report, particularly an interview with the parent who had pulled her son from Success Academy because, as the mother put it in Merrow's piece, the boy was suspended for losing his temper.

Merrow "refused to give us any opportunity to address those allegations," Moskowitz said in her letter. She detailed an earlier email exchange with Merrow in which she said the mother "should not be allowed to simultaneously use her privacy rights to prevent us from speaking while telling her side of the story."

Moskowitz went on, in her letter to Woodruff, to detail what she said was the boy's conduct, a list that included punching, kicking, scratching, and throwing desks. While Moskowitz used pseudonyms for the mother and son, Merrow's report had identified them by name. Thus, anyone examining the matter closely could make the connection between the boy and the long list of alleged behavioral problems cited in Moskowitz's letter. Blogger Alexander Russo wondered whether Success Academy violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by disclosing the disciplinary issues.

On Oct. 20, the NewsHour issued a clarification that said Moskowitz should have been given the chance to respond to the family's comments. The clarification also defended against an objection made by Moskowitz about the discussion of attrition rates in Merrow's piece.

"The fundamental point of Mr. Merrow's report is about the policy of suspensions of young children," the NewsHour statement says. "It accurately documents that Success Academy suspends students as young as 5- and 6-year-olds at a greater rate than many other schools, which Ms. Moskowitz does not dispute. Mr. Merrow's report also explains that Success Academy Charter Schools are achieving superior academic results and are popular among New York area families. While the NewsHour regrets the decision to include that particular mother and child without providing Ms. Moskowitz with an opportunity to respond, the NewsHour stands by the report."

Moskowitz was not mollified by the clarification, saying in a second letter to Woodruff that "it ignores many of issues I raised and in fact includes new inaccurate claims."

Meanwhile, the mother sent a letter to Moskowitz demanding that she "remove" her letters to Woodruff, saying that the school had failed to obtain the mother's consent to disclose her son's disciplinary record in violation of FERPA. (While the mother's letter is available on the Web, it is unclear whether the mother made it available herself or not.)

Ann Powell, the executive vice president of public affairs for Success Academies, told me in an interview that Moskowitz did not identify the child by name in her letter to the NewsHour.

"It seems to me the parent made a decision to put her son in a national media outlet in a very public way," Powell said. 

As for Merrow's report, Powell repeated a few of the responses made by Moskowitz but suggested the letters provide the best detailing of the charter group's concerns. She said she knew of no response yet from the NewsHour to Moskowitz's second letter.

[UPDATED Friday 6:15 p.m.: And late Friday, Success Academy posted a letter from Moskowitz to the mother, alleging that the mother was not truly interested in privacy but had appeared willingly in Merrow's report. "Success Academy had a constitutional right to speak publicly to set the record straight about the reasons that your son received suspensions," Moskowitz says in the letter.]

Asked about the flap via email, Merrow said: "I stand by our analysis and the report but regret my error in including that family, an error in judgment compounded by not asking Ms. Moskowitz to comment. For that I apologize to the NewsHour audience and Ms. Moskowitz." 

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