Charter schools have been around in the United States for over two decades and have risen to the forefront of the “education reform” agenda. They are frequently held up as successful alternatives to the supposedly failing public school system, especially in poor communities.
Variations on the word “fail” appear frequently in media coverage around public schools, and not just to describe student or teacher performance. The phrase “failing schools” is ubiquitous, appearing 611 times in the New York Times since 2002, when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a champion of charter schools, took office.
The phrase is often used to contrast public schools with charter schools—despite years of available data showing charter schools’ performance as comparable to if not worse than district schools. Two studies from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), from 2009 and 2013, frequently appear in charter stories in newspapers like the Times. However, certain findings from the studies rarely appear in coverage, such as the underrepresentation of students with disabilities and English-language learners in charter schools.
In New York City, the past decade has been an especially good one for charter schools, which increased from 17 when Bloomberg took office in 2002 (New York Daily News, 7/14/13) to the current tally of 183. Meanwhile, Bloomberg closed over 160 regular public schools.
The election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, has marked a significant rhetorical shift from the Bloomberg-era narrative of characterizing public schools as “failing” and charter schools as irrefutably successful. The mayor’s criticisms of the charter sector led to critical coverage rarely seen before in the Times—specifically, coverage that scrutinized the demographics of public schools and charter schools, and how those demographics inform student performance.
In 2013, leading up to New York City’s mayoral primary, at least 21 stories in the Times about public schools and charter schools discussed school failure and performance. A number of those contained language critical of charter schools nationally, but argued that the city’s charters are an exception, based on data from the 2013 CREDO report. One section in an editorial (7/6/13) leading up to the mayoral primary bore the subhead “Failing Schools.” It referred to the schools closed by Bloomberg as “dropout factories” that had “outlived their usefulness.” There was no specific information about the schools Bloomberg closed or those that replaced them.
The next section, “Locating Charter Schools,” reported:
Nationally, charter schools often perform no better than traditional public schools and sometimes worse. But a study this year by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes showed that New York City was an exception, and that typical charter school students learned more in a year in reading and math than peers in their neighborhood district schools.
Another editorial the following month (8/4/13) argued that Bloomberg’s policy of “replacing large, failing schools with smaller, specialized ones and greatly expanding the number of charter schools” has “improved educational quality in many poor communities.”
The Times concluded: “Mr. Bloomberg rightly believes that shutting down failing schools and expanding the highest-performing charter schools are critical elements in any broader school reform.”
There is no mention in either editorial of the populations served by those “failing schools,” nor by the “highest-performing charters” that replaced them. In fact, the same CREDO study the Times cited as evidence of charter schools’ success revealed that the city’s charter sector serves only 5 percent English-language learners and 12 percent special-education students (compared to public schools’ 14 percent and 17 percent, respectively).
Moreover, the unsupported claim that Bloomberg’s policy has helped poor communities is undermined by data from the New York City Charter School Center, which found that 68 percent of charters served fewer poor students (eligible for lunch subsidies) than their community school districts. The same report showed that 96 percent of charters served fewer English-language learners, and 72 percent served fewer special-education students.
And while coverage of the city’s charters frequently presents their high populations of “minority” students as evidence, in and of itself, that those schools help poor communities of color, this is a vast oversimplification. The CREDO report found that charters serve fewer Hispanic and Asian American Pacific Islander students than the city’s public schools, and the exact same amount (74 percent) of students in poverty. Further, a report from the Civil Rights Project (3/14) found that charters are a contributing factor to New York City’s schools being among the most segregated in the country—three quarters of them have fewer than 1 percent white students.
This issue of marginalized student groups underrepresented in charter schools went largely unreported in the pages of the Times before the election of Mayor de Blasio. In the six months leading up to the mayoral election (5/5/13–11/5/13), roughly 90 stories mentioned both public schools and charter schools. Of those, only three mentioned students with disabilities or special education in relation to charters—one referenced a lawsuit in New Orleans (6/15/13), and another (9/26/13) was a review of education historian Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error.
The third, another editorial (10/15/13), referenced then-candidate de Blasio’s stance on education: “And he says, again rightly, that some charter schools serve too few English-language learners and others who might need special education courses or are difficult to teach.” It continues:
But here he is at risk of oversimplifying: The problem of assigning students with special needs to stronger schools afflicts the entire system. It is a mistake to single out charter schools, many of which are high-performing, for shortcomings that are common across the board.
The Times editorial conflated the two fundamentally different issues of access and quality. To concede that charters serve too few English-language learners and special education students, and to counter with an argument the “entire system” should have “stronger” schools, washes over the critique of charters: It’s not that they don’t provide a “strong” school, but that for those populations, they don’t provide a school at all.
The board went on to note that the city has “one of the nation’s most successful charter school systems. A study published earlier this year shows that the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers.” Again, the success of charter schools is presented as if it exists independently of their dearth of “difficult” students.
The editorial acknowledged that such populations “tend to be underrepresented in the charter school population,” but countered that public schools “must do a better job of this, too,” citing a study from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform that “tens of thousands of new immigrants, special needs students and poor students are disproportionately assigned to struggling New York high schools that have little chance of helping them.”
But the existence of those tens of thousands of students in those “struggling” public schools contradicts any comparison to charter schools, who, as the Times just established, do not equally serve such populations. In one paragraph, the board acknowledges students’ exclusion from charter schools, and in the next, laments their placement in public schools.
However, in the six months since the mayoral election, out of 100 Times stories containing “public schools” and “charter schools,” 12 mentioned students with disabilities, special education and/or English-language learners. De Blasio helped bring these issues into the debate when he attempted to overturn three charter school co-locations, all in Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network, put in place under the Bloomberg administration. One of the co-locations would have displaced students at a public school that serves children with high-need disabilities. Moskowitz reacted with a rally in Albany, an appeal to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a media blitz (Extra!, 5/14), with Success Academy students appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (3/11/14), where de Blasio has also appeared.
The conflict led to increased Times reporting about the city’s charter schools, much of which has revolved around the issue of shared space. Because students with disabilities are at the center of the dispute, coverage has been forced to include them; for instance, an article (3/4/14) on the political battle in Albany reported: “Other critics note that her schools tend to serve fewer special education students and non-native English speakers than surrounding neighborhood schools.”
The Times editorial board (3/16/14) added these populations to its standard framing of “failing schools” and charter schools: “The city should shut down failing schools and allow only the best charter operators to expand. It should reward schools that advance the cause of equity by enrolling adequate numbers of disabled students, English-language learners and transient students.”
And an April 5 op-ed headlined “Charter School Refugees” by Baruch College journalism professor Andrea Gabor noted:
In East Harlem, data for the 2012–13 school year shows that most of the public open-enrollment elementary and middle schools have double, and several have triple, the proportion of special-needs kids of nearby charter schools.
The op-ed pointed out that charter schools’ lack of the hardest-to-teach students—in education jargon, those with Individual Education Plans—is no accident:
Some students with IEPs find charters, which often foster a no-excuses culture, a poor fit, and leave voluntarily. But sometimes there’s pressure: Administrators may advise parents that the school can’t support a child’s disability, or punish kids for even the slightest disciplinary infractions. However it happens, it leads to rising special-needs populations at nearby public schools.
This information is nothing new. Both oft-cited CREDO studies contain data on underrepresented populations both nationally and locally. But for the Times, examining the children who are left out seems not to have been a priority until a political conflict propelled them into the spotlight.
The treatment of children with disabilities and English-language learners as a sort of “niche” aspect of the charter school narrative, and not a fundamental element of the story, illustrates the devaluing of those populations. Of the city’s 1 million public school students, over 170,000 children receive special education services and over 144,000 are learning English, according to the Department of Education. Those numbers are significant, although the exclusion of children from supposedly “public” charter schools would be newsworthy even if they weren't.
The consistent downplaying in coverage of this aspect of charter schools also shows how incomplete “failing schools” is as a description of the problems facing public education. To repeatedly report on “failing schools” alongside “successful” charter schools, without also reporting on the different demographics of each, creates a false equivalency that leaves public schools doomed. This rhetorical victory is the real success of the charter movement—one that is just now being challenged by the paper of record.
Molly Knefel is a journalist and co-host of the daily political podcast Radio Dispatch. She is also an elementary after-school teacher at a public school in the Bronx.