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The Detroit Free Press's Crude, Unhelpful Slam on Charter Schooling

Last week, the Detroit Free Press took a long, hard look at charter schooling in Michigan. Hard-nosed education reporting is always welcome. After all, charters are public schools, funded with public dollars, and serving the public's kids.  But it's remarkable how coverage of charter schooling, school vouchers, and tuition tax credits tends to spur scandal-seeking, whereas traditional district coverage tends towards breathless accounts of "New recycling program has students seeing green!"

The Free Press coverage was pretty much summed up by its key graphic--a billion dollars being erased on a chalkboard. Why is the billion being erased? Well, the paper's key "findings" include:

A] "Charter schools spend $1 billion per year in state taxpayer money, often with little transparency."

B] "Charter schools as a whole fare no better than traditional schools in educating students in poverty."

C] "Some charter schools are innovative and have excellent academic outcomes -- but those that don't are allowed to stay open year after year."

D] "Michigan has substantially more for-profit companies running schools than any other state."

E] "Some charter school board members were forced out after demanding financial details from management companies."

F] "State law does not prevent insider dealing and self-enrichment by those who operate schools."

As Chuck Fellows, president of the FlexTech High School Board of Directors, argued in a Free Press op-ed, "Traditional schools spend $11 billion annually and have a graduation rate ranging from 70% to 79%, according to a 2006 Gates Foundation report. Does that mean that $2 billion to $3 billion is wasted each year?" Fellows' smart response raises the obvious question here. But let me take a moment to respond to the key "findings" pithily and directly:

A] Charters are spending less per student than are traditional district schools.

B] Even the paper's reporting concludes that charters are doing similarly while spending less money.

C] Charter schooling offers no guarantees. Some schools are doing terrifically. Others aren't. The lousy ones are sometimes closed, but not aggressively or often enough. Charter authorizers and advocates are aware of this problem and are working on it. Can the same be said for district schools?

D] I've no earthly idea why it matters whether more for-profits are managing schools. If these for-profits deliver good results for kids, great. If not, that's a problem. But tax status just really shouldn't fascinate us quite so much. In fact, one might argue that attracting more growth-oriented charter management organizations could be great for students (though the reporting never even imagines such a possibility).

E] If charter board members were forced out for doing due diligence, that's a real problem and should be addressed. Personally, I'm uncertain whether the reporters got the whole story here. If they did, great. Meanwhile, I certainly hope the Free Press is as interested in the board behavior and management of the state's district schools, which represent more than 90% of Michigan's K-12 spending.   

F] If the law doesn't prevent "insider dealing" or "self-enrichment," and that's a problem, then legislators can and should change the law. But I found the series peculiar in the way the Free Press tried to beat up on charters for doing things that are currently acceptable under Michigan law.

There's a fundamental challenge for the press in covering school choice. It's that reporters and editors tend to hold choice programs up to some imaginary standard of high-quality, equitable provisions, rather than to the options that actually exist. For instance, you might think the Free Press's big takeaway would be the fact that Michigan's charter schools seem to be doing about as well as traditional districts despite problematic laws, less per pupil funding, and all the challenges of an emergent sector.  At a minimum, you might have expected an awareness that the chance to rethink and reimagine K-12 schooling comes with bumps in the road.

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