The Detroit Free Press recently concluded a week-long series on charter schools in Michigan, featuring dozens of articles, supposedly reflecting over 20 months of research, countless interviews and multiple visits to charter schools across Michigan.
The series spared no criticism of charter schools, painting them as wasteful, shadowy, unaccountable and failures at their central goal – educating Michigan’s kids.
In the end, the Free Press only got one thing wrong about charter schools: Everything.
Many of their factual errors stem from one major, glaring and apparently intentional oversight. The Detroit Free Press refuses to acknowledge that state lawmakers dramatically reformed charter public schools in Michigan with a new law that went into effect in January 2012.
The new law made Michigan charter schools the most tightly regulated in the nation, with the most oversight, and hit them with the toughest penalties for failure.
It also made them more regulated and accountable than traditional public schools. Charters have to abide by nearly all the same regulations as traditional public schools, but also face additional regulation not shared by their traditional counterparts.
To illustrate that point, late last week Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, appeared on a statewide public affairs talk show and issued a challenge.
He asked public school superintendents, administrators and school boards across the state to sign a pledge to operate under the same state laws, rules and regulations that charter schools have operated under since the state’s new charter school law went into effect in 2012.
Not a single public school superintendent has taken Quisenberry up on his offer. None will.
But there is a second, undeniable presence hovering over the Free Press’s series, as well – the paper’s close alignment with the Michigan Education Association.
First, let’s unpack some of the paper’s mistakes.
The Free Press repeatedly claimed, for instance, that Michigan’s charter school law was 20 years old. That’s simply not true, and they knew it. Michigan’s charter law was rewritten in 2011 and took effect in 2012.
The Free Press reported on an alleged lack of transparency at one particular Detroit charter school in 2010, claiming it illustrated the need for reform and stricter standards.
They never reported that the state legislature addressed that concern in 2011, slapping charter schools with new transparency regulations on top of those faced by traditional public schools.
In its story on the Great Lakes Education Project, it incorrectly reported the year it was formed, who formed it and the amount of money it spends, among other mistakes.
They reported that charter schools don’t do a better job than traditional public schools at educating students who live in poverty, or students in Detroit, but study after study shows the opposite to be the truth.
The CREDO Institute at Stanford University, for example, found in 2013 that a typical charter school student in Michigan gains an additional two months of learning every year in reading and math, compared to a traditional public school student. In Detroit, it’s an additional three months of learning every year.
The majority of charter school students come from impoverished homes and backgrounds.
Worse than the factual mistakes and errors the Detroit Free Press choose to print, were the facts about charters – and traditional public schools – that the Free Press refused to publish.
Did you know that 81 charters have closed in the last 20 years because they failed to meet the expectations of parents, students or their authorizer, while no traditional public schools have closed for failing kids?
They didn’t tell readers that the longer students remain in charter public schools the higher their test scores and academic performance, either. MEAP assessments and independent studies admit as much, but not the Free Press.
The Free Press complained that several charter schools received failing grades for years but never closed – but ignores the fact that 19 of the 20 lowest performing schools in Michigan are traditional public schools that have been failing for years. None of them have closed.
Why leave these relevant facts out?
The answer may lie in union politics. (It’s more charitable to the Free Press staff to grant them the assumption of a misguided bias of advocacy rather than simple laziness, though that may have played a role as well.)
Charters do not have to pay into the Michigan Education Association’s pension fund (they provide different high-quality retirement plans for the educators they employ), and they are empowered to contract out their third party services to non-union providers.
The MEA doesn’t like that much, and has marked charter schools as their top target and sworn enemy.
It really shouldn’t have come as any surprise then that the Free Press would commit journalistic malpractice on the subject, especially when one understands that the Detroit Free Press shares a nearly 100% endorsement ratio with the Michigan Education Association.
In 2012, the paper and the MEA endorsed the same candidates for president, United States Senate, Michigan’s Congressional delegation, and endorsed a nearly identical slate for the state legislature and education posts.
Just as important, the Free Press stood alongside the MEA and their top allies, Democrats Mark Schauer and state superintendent John Austin, in vocally opposing freedom to work reforms in 2012 that gave every Michigan public school teacher the right to join, or not join, the teachers union.
With a record in lockstep with the MEA and a new willingness to toss the facts out the window to meet a union agenda, the time has indeed come for accountability and transparency with so-called journalists who report on Michigan schools.