More Inaccuracies in New York Times Attack on Michigan Charter Schools

Fourth in a series. NY Times article gets wrong the number of charters that engage for-profit managers

The New York Times Magazine published a 7,000-word story on Sept. 5 that attacked Michigan’s charter schools. Among the themes it promoted was one popular among charter school opponents, that charters are all about the money because their boards hire for-profit education management companies to operate their schools.

But the author gave inaccurate information when describing how many Michigan charters are managed by for-profit companies.

The article stated that 80 percent of charter schools in the state are operated by for-profit entities known as “education management organizations.”

When newspaper and magazine feature writers cover a topic, their reporting often relies on information previously reported in other articles. Michigan Capitol Confidential reached out to freelance writer Mark Binelli and New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein to determine the origin of the 80 percent figure, but neither responded.

It’s possible that Binelli got his information from a 2011 Forbes article titled, “80% of Michigan Charters are For-Profits.” That piece cited Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron as the source for the 80-percent figure. Miron also was quoted in Binelli’s New York Times Magazine article, so he may have got the figure directly from Miron.

Binelli also reported that Miron told him that is rare for a charter school to be closed in Michigan. But this, too, is inaccurate. (See previous Michigan Capital Confidential reporting on this subject: “False Claims, Inaccuracies Rife in New York Times Article On Michigan Charter Schools.”)

A Detroit Free Press series published in 2014 on Michigan’s charter schools reported that 61 percent of charters here are managed by a for-profit company. It also said another 17 percent engage a for-profit provider for some specific services, such as staffing.

Public School Academies, the formal term in the state for charter schools, come into being when an independent board of trustees is authorized – “chartered” – by a state institution to open a public school. Some of these academies operate schools in multiple buildings under the same charter.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies tracks the number of charters and how many schools buildings they operate. It says there are 380 charter school buildings in Michigan. Of these, 183 contract with a for-profit, full-service education management company.

That would mean just 48 percent of charter school buildings are operated by for-profit ventures. There are 71 other schools, or 19 percent, that contract with a for-profit company but only for human resources.

All told this means that at most, 67 percent of charter schools have contracted with a for-profit vendor to manage some or all of their operations.

For the sake of comparison, over 70 percent of Michigan public school districts contract out for at least one major noninstructional service, according to a recent survey conducted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The Michigan Association of Public School Academies said it reached out to the author of The New York Times Magazine article but got no response. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is the publisher of Michigan Capitol Confidential and was mentioned in the NY Times Magazine article.

Here's the other stories in the series:

No. 1: False Claims, Inaccuracies Rife in New York Times Article on Michigan Charter Schools

No. 2: New York Times Article, Critical of Charter Schools, Misses Key Point on School Funding

No. 3: New York Times Cherry-Picks Data In Takedown of Michigan Charter Schools

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.