Confusion over Charter Schools

by David Kopel

Rocky Mountain News. May 7, 2005

Suppose you saw a story headlined "Nuggets dent professional sports" and whose subhead claimed that the Denver Nuggets "lure" fans away from professional sports.

You would instantly know that something was fishy with the article, since Nuggets basketball is a professional sport. The front page of last Sunday's Denver Post featured an equally ridiculous headline: "Charters dent public schools."

In fact, charter schools are a type of public school: they charge no tuition, are funded with public tax dollars, are controlled by state law, are authorized by elected school boards, and are open to the same students who are eligible to attend other public schools.

Newspaper reporters don't write their own headlines, but the substance of the Post article was also slanted against charter schools. The article was full of data about how charter schools take money away from public schools.

To balance the school bureaucrats complaining about charters "poaching" students from other public schools, the article should have included the perspective of a charter advocate suggesting if a student chooses to leave School A and attend School B, the former school has no legitimate claim on the tax dollars used to pay for the student's education.

More fundamentally, the article created the false impression that charter schools are wealthier than other public schools: One charter school promises an out- of-state trip if students do well; another checks out laptops to students; others have "gleaming facilities."

What the Post failed to explain is that charters have less money than other public schools; by state law, a school district can choose to provide only 90 percent of the ordinary per-pupil funding to a charter school. The school district can keep the other 10 percent for itself - even if the district provides few or no services to the charter school.

So if charter schools sometimes provide extras for students, they do so mainly by spending less on administration and teacher salaries than other public schools do.

Who's the best barely-known columnist in the metro area? My vote goes to Wayne Laugesen, author of the Wayne's Word column for the Boulder Weekly(www. boulderweekly.com).

Laugesen is a Boulder environmentalist who spends extra at the grocery store for foods not produced from genetically modified crops. His latest column chides anti-biotech activists in Boulder for ignoring what appears to be an environmental disaster in Boulder: The Boulder wastewater system pumps large quantities of estrogenic chemicals into the rivers. Many of these chemicals come from birth control pills and patches used by Boulderites.

University of Colorado researchers have found that the fish downstream from the wastewater plant show obvious effects of being dosed with chemicals designed to disrupt the reproductive process: males now constitute only 10 percent of the fish population, and the number of males is almost matched by the number of mutant fish who cannot be classified as male or female.

The Post reported the fish story, including the Environmental Protection Agency's alarm at the preliminary findings, last October.

As an opinion columnist, Laugesen advanced the story to the next level by pointing to the hypocrisy of Boulderites who want to ban synthetic hormones which could grow drought-resistance crops to feed starving children in the Third World, but who will not give up their own synthetic hormones which are destroying downstream ecosystems.

Both the Rocky Mountain News and the Post have run many stories on Giuliana Sgrena, the Italian Communist journalist whose automobile was fired on by American soldiers on March 3, killing her driver, as the car was speeding past an American checkpoint.

Sgrena had just been released from captivity by Iraqi terrorists at the time of the incident.

As reported by CBS News on April 28 and by Agence France-Presse the next day, U.S. satellite photos show the Sgrena's vehicle was traveling at 60 mph - although she has asserted that car was going only 30 mph. Unfortunately, neither Denver paper has reported this important fact in their recent Sgrena stories, even though her false statement casts serious doubt on the vehemently anti-American Sgrena's claims about the rest of the incident.

Last February, I wrote about coverage of the arrest of a Virginia man accused of plotting to assassinate President Bush. I wrote that the Knight-Ridder story in the Post "was better" than the Associated Press story that ran in the News. The Post story reported that the arrested man had graduated from Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia, whereas the News article only said that he attended "a private high school."

The Post article was better, but that doesn't mean that the AP writer was inferior in reporting.

News wire reporters often file several versions ("write-thrus") of the stories they write over the course of day. The first version might contain immediate breakings news, while the write-thrus provide additional reporting.

In the assassination story, the AP reporter, Matthew Barakat, contacted the News to explain that while the first four versions of his article did not supply the name of the high school, the final five versions did. At the newspapers, it's up to the wire or "telegraph" editors to decide which version of an article to use, within the newspapers' own deadline constraints.

By the way, that same item about the assassination stories contained one humongous error: I wrote that the accused man's name was "Matthew Barakat." Reporters sometimes become characters in the story they cover, but obviously not in this case.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books.

 

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