Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Associated Press Runs the Charter Industry's Narrative

Sigh. Another day, another undersourced news piece presenting only the charter point of view.

This time it's Christine Armario, writing for the Associated Press. The piece is widely titled "As Charters Grow, Public Schools See Sharp Enrollment Drop," but we can't give Armario credit for that thoughtful distinction, because here she is twitter, responding to former Duncan sidekick Michael Dannenberg's assertion that charter schools are public schools..

Well, no, they're not. When they answer to a publicly elected board. When they give a full, transparent accounting of how they spend tax dollars. When they commit to staying business forever, and not just as long as it makes business sense to stay open. When they take whatever students show up at their door. When they follow all of those rules that public schools follow. When all that is true, we can talk about calling them public schools, but until that day comes, they are private schools being financed with public tax dollars.

I will repeat, as always, that these distinctions do not automatically make charters evil and nefarious-- but they do automatically make them Not Public Schools.

Armario focuses on the draining of students and money from public schools in major systems like LA and Detroit. But her view is not exactly nuanced, and her research is not exactly deep.

For instance, in considering California's charter growth, she might have looked to charter laws that put charters in the driver's seat. A good example would be Mt. Diablo, where the state has imposed a Rocketship Charter on the community despite the charter fraud and local opposition. California charter clout can also be seen in the serious charter pushback against the same report that Armario opens with, in broad simple strokes.

But broad simple strokes are the hallmark of this piece; it looks like Armario's editor called for a quick under-a-thousand-word take (it clocks in at 921 words). So here's Armario's history of charter schools:

Charter schools arrived in the 1990s and began attracting parents searching for an alternative to big-city districts that had strained for years to raise performance among minority and low-income students and those who are learning English.

And here's her analysis of the effects of charter on public schools.

In districts with growing student populations, such as Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, that growth helps ease potential overcrowding.

But in cities like Los Angeles, where the school-age population has been shrinking, the continued flight from traditional public schools has become a mounting concern. In most states, schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis, and the majority of those dollars follow students when they leave for a charter.

Her summary of the debate? Charter fans say that "it's only fair" that the money follows the students. Public school advocates point out that many public school costs don't change with the loss of students.

And she quotes charter spokeswoman Nina Rees who says that this sort of thing happens since public schools don't meet student needs. But Armario doesn't connect the dots between the draining of public ed resources and public ed's ability to be "competitive." Though she does note that A) that's how charter fans think it should work and B) the research doesn't actually back them up.

Armario also ticks off some of the districts that have experienced big drops in enrollment-- Detroit, Philly, Chicago, Losa Angeles-- without asking the question of how politicians have starved those public districts, thereby making well-supported charters more attractive.

In fact. rather than dig deeper into any of this, Armario gives a rehash of the charter industry's favorite narrative-- public schools are failing, so charters are taking off. 

As for voices she includes in her story-- there's Rees (National Alliance of Public Charter Schools), Ron Zimmer (who has published research sponsored by the charter loving Rand, Gates, and Joyce foundations), and a parent who was happy to get her child out of bad public schools and into a charter. On the other side, Steve Zimmer (LAUSD board president) and Susan Zoller, "a consultant hired by the district's union." There's also a strong showing by "others say." 

Is it glaringly tilted toward the charter side of things? No, but it does present the charter narrative without any critical consideration and the public education side without an explanation. Steve Zimmer's observation that charter proliferation leads to collateral damage is reported, but not explained. Nor does she consider a myriad of other issues, such as charters that move in and cash out, leaving students high and dry, or the question of exactly which students charters prefer to pull from public schools. And she lets the focus rest on the spread and growth of charters, and not the large number of students left in resource-strapped public schools.

Armario's coverage of charters in the past has also been light-touched. Here's a 2012 piece about how charters enroll fewer students with disabilities, with not a single mention of charges that charters enroll fewer SWD on purpose. ("Gosh," says Nina Rees in that piece, "it must just be that those parents don't choose charters.")

I expect more from an AP reporter whose beat includes education and charters. There's a worthwhile conversation to be had about charter schools in this country, but we can't have it if people are not getting the full, accurate view of what is actually happening. This was 921 words that did not help advance that conversation.


  1. The problem with the publicly elected school board test is that NYC Public does not have a publicly elected school board. This lack of a publicly elected school board has be endorsed by, among other people, Dr. Diane Ravitch.

    Do you want to say that none of the 1.1 million students in NYC Public attend a public school?

  2. Yup. Probably should have said so in the post, but cities like Philly and Chicago and Detroit where the elected board has been scuttled are not true public systems, though there is at least a vestige of public element since the person who appoints school leadership is elected. But no-- many students in some of our biggest cities are being robbed of a public school education.

    1. They are being robbed of a public education with the full endorsement of Dr. Ravitch. See her post here: https://dianeravitch.net/2015/03/27/new-york-city-should-mayoral-control-continue/