Jeff Kwitowski is the senior vice president of Public Affairs & Policy Communications.
I’ve worked with journalists for many years. One of my greatest frustrations is when they try to condense complex events into short summaries, but in doing so, omit critical details, facts, and context. Even worse is when those events are told primarily through the prism of one side only. Readers are left with a narrow and often misleading impression of what actually occurred.
Imagine, for example, a news story summarizing the 2016 Presidential election that reported Donald Trump won even though most Americans people voted for Secretary Clinton, but failed to explain our country’s Electoral College system. Readers who were unfamiliar the process would likely conclude that something wrong or even illegal occurred.
Too soon? Ok, then try this: Suppose an article on the 2001 AFC Divisional playoff game reported the Raiders lost on a game winning field goal by the Patriots after the referees overturned a clear fumble recovery by the Raiders, but never referenced or explained the “tuck rule.” (My view: bad rule, but right call). And imagine if the story included only quotes from the Raiders locker room. How are readers unfamiliar with that game likely to react?
Unless you knew the details of the event and can fill in the holes yourself, you rely on the news account. If the story is incomplete or unbalanced, it skews what really occurred. Errors of omission can be just as bad as errors of fact.
That’s what happened throughout a recent Education Week article about online charter schools. The reporter, who I genuinely like and respect, summarized several events in states involving online charter schools to support the narrative that these schools and their providers have “outsized influence” on state policy. The events cited by Ed Week involved complicated state legislative, regulatory and legal matters that occurred sometimes over several years, but they were whittled down into only a few sentences and, in some cases, told exclusively through the voice of one side. Nuance and balance was lost.
Before I go into the events, let me start out with how the article characterized lobbying and political expenditures from the two leading online learning providers, K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. The article cites publicly available numbers and then quotes only one person – a “lobbying expert” from California State University, Fresno – who said the total amount “strike me as strangely high in the field of state education.”
Ok. But compared to whom? Well, readers aren’t given any comparisons. So, just for some perspective, let’s look at what other organizations involved in the “field of state education” spend. The Pennsylvania State Education Association spent over $3 million in one election cycle. That’s one organization in one state in one year. The National Education Association and American Federation for Teachers blow that number out of the sky. The NEA spent over $133 million in political contributions alone in a single year. That dwarfs what K12 Inc. and Connections Academy have spent in combined contributions and lobbying in over 10 years.
But hey, I’m no lobbying expert.
Nobody blinks an eye when representatives from teachers unions, school boards associations, or other established interest groups are appointed to key state education governing bodies. It’s expected. So is it really atypical when state governing bodies appoint long-time, highly-respected charter school leaders? The Ed Week article doesn’t mention this, but in some states it is required by law that state charter authorizers appoint educators from existing charter schools, which is the case in Arizona where my colleague Mary Gifford served for several years on the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools. In all cases, representatives recuse themselves on matters related to their schools.
Now, let’s move on to how past events were characterized in several states:
The article cites concerns raised by outgoing Indiana Commissioner of Education Glenda Ritz at a September State Board of Education meeting that Hoosier Academy was creating a second online school (Insight School) as a strategy to avoid accountability. But, as Commissioner Ritz should have known, launching Insight was not a singular “strategy” by Hoosier Academy, nor was it the first time the new school was revealed to state officials. Readers were not told that the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) was involved in the development of Hoosier’s Improvement Plan and approval of Insight well before the State Board of Education meeting (IDOE approved the school and gave it a school number). Further, IDOE conducted a priority school outreach visit, reviewed the school improvement plan, and reported Hoosier Academy was meeting the eight Indiana School Turnaround Principles developed to improve outcomes. The decision to offer Insight was made through a collaborative process involving the school’s board, Ball State University (authorizer), and the school’s Priority School Outreach Coordinator from IDOE.
It’s unclear why outgoing Commissioner Glenda Ritz was seemingly unaware of IDOE’s involvement in the Priority School review and approval of Insight School, but it should not have come as a surprise to her. Also, the characterization that students were “siphoned” from Hoosier to Insight by school officials is incorrect. Parents choose. They have full control over whether they want to enroll their child in Hoosier or Insight.
“Christopher Cerf, a former education commissioner for New Jersey who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie, found out firsthand the pressure that K12 Inc. can exert on decisionmakers…He nixed two applications for K12 Inc.-backed schools in 2013, but first had to justify his decision to the governor himself.”
Left unmentioned in the article was the fact that former Commissioner Cerf actually approved both charter school applications in 2011. Here’s the background on one of those schools: Following approval of NJ Virtual Academy, and despite assurances from Department officials that no further issues remained, the NJ Virtual Academy charter board was told by the Department that it would have to go through an additional planning year to ensure the Department could provide sufficient oversight. In summer of 2012, the Department asked the school to wait to open and go through another planning year for the same reasons. During that time, the Department required NJ Virtual Academy to begin reaching out to families, collecting student applications and necessary documentation (proof residence, etc.) to demonstrate sufficient demand. They were also told to begin hiring teachers and build an administrative staff to prepare for school opening – all of which was done. Three months before the school was scheduled to open, Commissioner Cerf reversed his decision and blocked the school from opening. The board’s chair sent a detailed letter to the Commissioner that went unanswered [Read the letter here].
Hundreds of families who were expecting to start school that Fall were suddenly informed their school would not open despite the fact Commissioner Cerf approved the charter application two years earlier and told the school it simply needed to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, hire teachers and staff, and prepare to launch. Teachers unions and other anti-school choice groups lauded his decision, but parents were rightfully upset and demanded answers. I wasn’t in the room, but hundreds of angry parents may have been the real reason why the Governor asked his Commissioner to justify his decision to pull the plug weeks before the start of school.
“Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades.”
What are readers to believe when an article states that a legislator’s bill was killed “even after” producing a leaked email showing apparent misconduct by school officials? It must have been true and it must have been bad, right?
Simply put, this was a completely phony controversy manufactured by Democratic opponents of school choice and timed to hit days before the committee hearing for maximum impact. But it was total junk. After the hearing, teachers and school administrators spoke directly with lawmakers and media and debunked the allegation. (See this story from a TNVA teacher that originally ran as a guest op-ed in the Knoxville News Sentinel in Feb 2013).
None of this made it into the Ed Week story. Why include such a sensational and unsubstantiated charge if the other side is not represented or given an opportunity to respond?
Later in the article, Ed Week clears the deck to let former TN Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman give his take on virtual schools in Tennessee, but again with no counter view. Now, the events in Tennessee were complicated and different sides have very different views of what took place. This, however, is indisputable: a court ruled that the TN Commissioner of Education’s order to shut down the Tennessee Virtual Academy was a clear violation of the law. The evidence was so compelling that the judge ruled from the bench and the Department of Education did not appeal the court’s decision.
I give Ed Week credit here. The reporter highlights a parent from Nevada Virtual Academy whose son had a learning disability and struggled in traditional school prompting the family to enroll him in the online charter school. Since parents are the primary stakeholders and hold the most powerful accountability tool – choice – we should hear from them a lot more than the education establishment.
Ed Week reports how this parent, along with dozens more, flooded the NV Charter School Authority with hours of passionate testimony after the state charter board announced it was starting the process of revoking the contracts for the state’s three online charter schools.
But this wasn’t your standard run-of-the-mill state administrative process. In fact, the NV Charter School Authority scheduled this hearing on Good Friday during spring break and didn’t notify the schools that charter revocation was on the agenda until just days before the hearing. It was a clear move by NV Charter School Authority to try and close these schools quickly, quietly, and without parent input. Fortunately, parents rallied, interrupting family vacation time to attend the hearing and voice support for their school and their choice.
This should not happen to any school. A playground wouldn’t be closed without first giving proper notice to the local community and providing ample opportunity for public input. It is exactly why reform legislation is needed to ensure charter school parents are informed and included in high stakes decisions involving their children’s schools.
Ed Week’s characterization that the NC Virtual Academy charter school board “tried to go around the state board for approval” is just not accurate. The article didn’t explain that under North Carolina law districts can grant preliminarily approval to charter schools and then submit them to the North Carolina State Board of Education (NC SBOE) for final approval. That is what happened with NC Virtual Academy.
Cabarrus County Schools reviewed and approved the NC Virtual Academy’s charter school application. It was then sent to the NC SBOE for final approval. The school did not go around the state board. Rather, the NC SBOE, with the application before them, declined to take any formal action, neither approving nor denying. That created a legal question: can a district-approved charter school open if the NC SBOE declines to take action?
The court ultimately ruled in favor of the NC SBOE, but the state board’s action exposed a serious problem and raised a real concern among families and legislators: If the NC SBOE does not want certain kinds of charter schools to exist – for any reason at all – they could take no action and leave the schools in a perpetual state of limbo. That’s a recipe for unfair and unequal treatment of charter schools. This was a central reason why the legislature passed a law to create a pilot program for online charter schools.
The final section of the Ed Week article ends with the subhead, “online charters catch a break in North Carolina.” It is intended to leave readers shaking their heads:
“The law, as originally written, said the schools should not exceed a student withdrawal rate of 25 percent. But in the most recent legislative session, Republican lawmakers fixed that by relaxing the rules around student withdrawals—although only for virtual charters. Unlike district schools and brick and mortar charters, students who move out of state, fail to log in, or leave for a medical reason will no longer be counted as a withdrawal for the state’s virtual charter schools.”
Set aside that it’s both sensible and fair policy to not penalize a school because a child became sick or moved to a different state. But note how the article emphasizes that Republican lawmakers made the change “only for virtual charter schools.” So only virtual charters got a reprieve from accountability on withdrawal rates? Wow, that really does show the “outsized influence” of online charter schools.
But here’s the thing (and the error of omission): There are no punitive measures for district schools and brick and mortar charters for high withdrawal rates. They could exceed 25 percent and nothing happens. The only public schools in the state held accountable for withdrawal rates are virtual charter schools. Another way to put it would be: North Carolina’s virtual charter schools are held to higher accountability standards than district schools and brick and mortar charters.
Not sure that fits the subhead of “catching a break,” but why let those pesky details – in North Carolina and every other state – get in the way of a great narrative.