Readers deserved more transparency in lengthy charter-school indictment

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.

About The Author

Greg McNeilly

Greg McNeilly of Grand Rapids is president of the Michigan Freedom Fund. He doesn't do brunch, believing it is too Continental. The views and assertions of guest columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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John Q. Public
Sat, 07/05/2014 - 12:01am
I'm not too concerned about Free Press bias, and won't be until the brave men and women of law enforcement and fire suppression have the same freedom to work guaranteed to teachers!
Lorilyn coggins
Sat, 07/05/2014 - 4:16pm
I'm so disturbed by the blatant inaccuracies and fallacies printed by the Detroit Free Press it makes me wonder if anything they print us based in facts.
Sat, 07/05/2014 - 11:20pm
For all the huffing and puffing, the questions of transparency and governance in fact remain, as the recent report from MLive (June 29) illustrated ( The CREDO report is interesting, but larger measures do not support the conclusions so fully. Overall, charters tend to match their general school counterparts with some doing very well. Charters can be highly useful. That in fact, is why the questions of accountability, transparency and governance are so critical. We want what charters do well, and we want to guard against the all-too human tendency to self-service. And again, the evidence is there, laid out in painful detail, that charters can be self-serving entities, every bit as noxious as other schools.
Brian O'Connor
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 8:50am
This is nothing but knee-jerk reaction and a convenient -- but ignorant -- accusation of bias. No one who knows anything about how papers function would believe the Freep ran eight days of stories just to carry the MEA's water. If you want to demonstrate what was false, show the facts, show how the new law would have eliminated the past problems, cite figures, etc. For example: Does the new law mean all the self-serving leases for charter schools will now end? I think not. As for agendas, journalists don't operate that way, but the DeVos-backed Michigan Freedom Fund certainly has one, and the fund's anti-union bias is clearly on display in this hit job.
Sat, 04/02/2016 - 1:19am
You are exactly correct in what you have said - and with all the accusations I was wondering where McNeilly's links were for proof. I was also thinking while reading McNeilly's peice: Gee I thought Bridge Michigan had more integrity - then realized it's just an opinion piece.
John Q.
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 10:23am
It's hard to take anything Greg McNeilly says seriously when he can't understand the difference between the news side and opinion side of a publication like the Free Press. The endorsements are done by the editorial staff, which have nothing to do with the news articles done by the journalists. Most of McNeilly's claims are that the change in state law is 2012 wiped clean the sins of the past. But many of the key problems raised in the article still exist. The most glaring are the lax oversight by the charter school boards and their authorizers and the serious lack of disclosure and transparency when it comes to the use of public tax dollars. McNeilly fails to address those points because he knows that they underscore many of the critical findings of the Free Press series.
Ken McFarlane
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 10:36am
I'll leave it to the authors of the series to defend the few substantive attacks in Mr. McNeilly's response. That leaves plenty to respond to since most of this critique is an attack on the MEA, Democrats, and the Free Press. If we're going to judge an argument by who agrees with it, then we should judge McNeilly on the same grounds. He is a career Republican Party man and campaign operative. He is Devos's man. He has been active in the fight to expand the charter movement to a voucher system. It be as unexpected as the sun rising in the west for McNeilly to do anything but attack the Free Press series.
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 10:46am
Where is the transparency on salaries? If you go to any traditional public school website and click on the budget and salaries link and all the data on salaries is there. Go to a charters page and it says "district hired all employees through a third party vendor..." with no data reported. Deliberate effort to hide information.
John pak
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 11:15am
Talk about journalistic malpractice. This piece linking MEA and the Free Press is a political hack job. Question the facts of the article all you want. I have no issue with that. By the way, the MEA pension fund you allude to is by no means an accurate representation. This is a state retirement system in which MEA, non-MEA, other union and non union employees pay into. Get your facts straight. Your error on the retirement is probably bias, but I can't rule out pure laziness or ignorance.
Bill Bresler
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 11:51am
"Michigan Freedom Fund"? That tells me all I need to know. Bridge, you needed to add EDITORIAL OPINION in big type before and after this.
Independent Business
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 1:26pm
From what I read, the only real complaint is that the Freep didn't do a story on traditional public schools. It's called "staying on topic." If you ever get to a school of journalism you will learn about it, as long at the Republicants in Lansing don't outlaw it for teaching unionism.
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 2:11pm
In reading this screed its important to know just who Greg McNeilly is & who financially supports him & his think tank the Michigan Freedom Fund. This is a front for the Republican party & the DeVos family. The DeVos family is Michigans answer to the Koch brothers & brings the same union busting, religiously conservative agenda to all they say & do. Turning public education into indoctrination of their values & undermining a secular educational system has always been their agenda & charter schools is part of their answer. Underfunded & inequitable distribution of resources result from the very actions of groups like the freedom fund and after they succeed in making public education undesirable they put up their profits mills, ie for profit charter schools as an answer to desperate communities. Its not the motivation of the free press article that should be questioned but Greg McNeilly & his wealthy patrons the DeVos's who's contributions to the west side of the state come with hidden price tags & prominent use of their names in everything their wealth touchs.
Ken McFarlane
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 2:18pm
Is there any way to get an explanation from the Bridge why a comment was removed? My comment was removed and I am completely at a loss as to why.
David Zeman
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 3:42pm
Ken, I'm the editor of Bridge, send me the email that you say was removed and I will look into it. David Zeman
Nancy Derringer
Sun, 07/06/2014 - 9:10pm
Ken, I've been moderating comments all weekend, and haven't seen anything by you, nor have I trashed anything. So I'm not sure what happened.
Mon, 07/07/2014 - 9:32am
Most everyone in Michigan knows the Detroit Free Press is a biased opinion paper so you can't take what they say seriously. Charter schools are doing well and making a difference in kid's lives and the teacher's unions are feeling threatened. I don't care if you graduated from high school, a community college or went to an Ivy League University. What matters is what you do with your life. Are you being responsible and contributing to society and not being a burden to it?
Mon, 07/07/2014 - 12:10pm
Why on earth did you publish this crazy whacked out hit piece from a DeVos puppet?
Mon, 07/07/2014 - 3:47pm
The results on Charters vs. public schools is mixed. Charter schools should do better since they can pick and choose their students. Some say Charters should do better because they can fire teachers without due process. But the story here is not results of learning or the MEA, but whether there is equal and sufficient oversight for Charters. Say the Freep is biased and in league with the devil, er, I mean MEA. So let's find out. The Bridge should be able to do that. If there is no malfeasance, then good.
Tue, 07/08/2014 - 10:16am
Given the DeVos family's funding of charter schools it's obvious that McNeilly's fact free attack is just the DeVos machine fighting back. Look hard at Amway and you'll see the same kind of thing where those who were conned are attacked the same way. And remember that the Amway is a 'sponsor' of this magazine and seems to have special status in terms of getting their message out there. The fact is that the Charters are NOT transparent in their finances (using our tax dollars) and this has led to significant abuses - documented by the Detroit Free Press. Instead of investigating these abuses and urging that rules be set up to prevent the abuses McNeilly and DeVos want them ignored.
Al Churchill
Tue, 07/08/2014 - 10:28pm
Dan Quisenberry's appearance on Off The Record was mentioned in McNeilly's article. I watched that program. Quisenberry weaseled his way around every question that came his way. When asked how well he would rate charters, he responded "B, all of them" Given that somewhere around 70% of them either do less well than traditional public school peers or on par with traditional public schools, that is a stretch. Charters, as originally advertised, would do better than traditional schools. Those that do not should be shut down.