How the New York Times Distorts the Performance of Detroit Charters

Best available research shows Detroit charter schools are successful

President-elect Donald Trump will nominate Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education. DeVos has worked on education policy for decades and her record shows that she believes in parental freedom over centralized control when it comes to deciding where kids go to school.

Unions, conventional school district leaders and leftist academics are not happy about the pick. Charters, vouchers, tax credits and homeschooling have all been increasing across the nation and when parents and kids get a choice, they are increasingly choosing something other than their government-assigned school district.

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Since the DeVos family is in Michigan and generally support public charter schools, much of the critique has focused on these schools’ performance. These are the only publicly funded independent schools here, because, unlike most other states, the Michigan Constitution prevents using vouchers or tax credits to help parents afford tuition at private schools. Nevertheless, the best research available shows that charter schools in Michigan have been successful, especially in Detroit.

But the New York Times and others are heavily distorting the results of Michigan’s charter schools (CapCon has a few examples). And many of these critiques rely on a front-page news article from the New York Times from this past summer (see here, here, here). The article was heavy on anecdotes and just factually inaccurate in a number of instances.

A full take-down can be read here, but I’d like to focus on one point to show the level of distortion the article resorts to. Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute notes how Times reporter Kate Zernike words the performance of charter schools in the Motor City: “[H]alf the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools.”

This information comes from a 2013 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. The way the NYT article summarizes the findings isn’t technically incorrect, it is just cherry-picked in such a way as to totally distort what the study actually says.

Here is a chart from the 2013 CREDO study:

As the table shows, it’s true that half the charters in Detroit are doing “only as well, or worse than” district-run schools in the city. By lumping together the charters that are doing about the same and those that are doing worse, Zernike masks the inconvenient truth that only one charter in Detroit performed worse in reading and only seven performed worse in math.

As Bedrick notes:

Grouping the very few underperforming charters with the approximately half of schools that perform at roughly the same level as the district schools distorts the picture. It’s just as fair to say that more than nine out of ten Detroit charters performed as well or better than their district school counterparts. The most accurate description would note that about half of Detroit’s charters outperform their district school counterparts, about half perform roughly the same, and a very small number underperform.

No matter how the NYT and others try to spin the data, the best research shows that Michigan charter school students are outperforming their peers in district-run schools. Detroit charter students are doing even better. This is why, in a later report, CREDO researchers suggested Detroit’s charter schools “serve as models to other communities.”


Related Articles:

A Response to the New York Times About Charter Schools in Michigan

New York Times Cherry-Picks Data In Takedown Of Michigan Charter Schools

New York Times Wrong: Detroit Charter Schools Didn't 'Desert' Kids, the City Did

The New York Times’ Comprehension Problem on Detroit Charters

ACLU: Study Finds Detroit's Charters May Outperform, But Their Competition Hurts Regular Schools