Media Plays Games, Misleads Readers When Its Target Is School Choice

Public Radio labels a charter school opponent as ‘pro-school choice’

Media accounts that give a negative view of public charter schools sometimes cite alleged supporters of school choice as their critics. Doing so gives the story a man-bites-dog quality that gives the criticism extra weight.

But what if the person cited doesn’t support school choice after all?

Michigan Public Radio appears to have used this rhetorical device with a headline that describes Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron as pro-charter, though he has a long history of attacking charter schools. The story, which also attacked charter schools, had this headline: “Pro-School Choice Expert Gives Michigan Approach Failing Grade.”

“I think it’s accurate to say Gary Miron is an advocate for school choice, just not for the exact manner in which Michigan goes about it,” said Joe Linstroth, the executive producer of Stateside, Michigan Radio’s daily news magazine.

Miron’s writings generally are highly critical of charter schools. In fact, readers would be hard-pressed to find any of his public statements support charter schools. Miron did not respond to an email asking him for evidence of something positive he has written about charters.

Miron was part of a three-person team that critiqued a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the trade group for charters. The report Miron responded to featured 21 statements countering supposed myths about charter schools.

That’s Miron’s role in the media. At least a half dozen media outlets in 2017 used Miron as their source to criticize charters, including those outside Michigan.

In a New York Times Magazine article, Miron was quoted as saying, “He found authorizers rarely closed schools in Michigan — typically, only if the school had 'been shamed by the media.’” That statement was not accurate, however. A page on the Michigan Department of Education website listed 122 public charter schools that were closed from 1995 through 2016. (Another 11 charters closed in 2017.) In fact, the vast majority of charter school closings receive no media coverage.

Miron’s postings on social media accounts also suggest nothing supportive of charter schools. His Twitter profile is full of tweets or retweets from others referencing articles critical of charters.

For example, here’s a sample of Miron’s posts on Twitter about charter schools in 2017:

-- July 3: “Michigan’s virtual charters are gaining in numbers, lagging in achievement”

-- July 20: “Impact of so-called ‘no-excuses’ or ‘college prep’ charter schools. Selective entry and exit process on steroids.”

-- March 1 (retweet): “Charter schools are accelerating re-segregation and increasing social tensions argues” (link to a video of Miron speaking at a conference)

In February 2017, Miron tweeted an article with the headline: “Charter Schools Are Overrated.”

On its website, the National Education Policy Center, which has published some of Miron’s reports, lists him as a fellow. The organization is funded in part by donations from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s two largest teachers unions. Those unions are highly critical of the charter school movement.

Nationally, hardly any charter schools are unionized. In Michigan, just 7 out of 294 public charters have unions.

“The focus of his academic research, at least over the last decade, has been critical of school choice policies and critical of charter schools,” said Michael Van Beek, the director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “That’s fine. But looking at his track record, it is hard to understand how he could portrayed as pro-school choice.”

The media tactic was used by a national news outlet in the past.

In December 2016, the news site Politico published a story attacking Michigan charter schools that stated, “The results in Michigan are so disappointing that even some supporters of school choice are critical of the state’s policies.”

Politico cited John Austin, then-president of the Michigan State Board of Education, as its example of a supporter of school choice. It stated that Austin “also describes himself as a strong charter-school supporter.”

Others disagree, however.

“Calling John Austin a supporter of school choice is like calling Frosty the Snowman a supporter of global warming,” said Gary Naeyaert, then- executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, in response to the Politico story. “No single person has done more to spread misinformation and outright falsehoods about Michigan’s charter schools than John Austin.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.