Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering School Choice, On a Deadline

Erik Robelen, EWA deputy director, introduces reporters at National Seminar in Chicago in April, 2015. (Madeleine Cummings)

When Lori Higgins of the Detroit Free Press began investigating for a series on charter schools, she and her colleagues gathered in a conference room at the Michigan Department of Education and started flipping through blue binders on every charter school in the state. The reporters pored over contracts and leases, filed Freedom of Information Act requests, visited schools, interviewed teachers, and had a data expert analyze student test scores.

Their effort led to a series of articles that revealed a lack of adequate state oversight on the $1 billion charter school sector in Michigan, multiple conflicts of interest, and many instances of failing schools remaining open year after year. They discovered that Michigan had considerably more for-profit companies running schools than any other state and that, as a whole, charter schools were not outperforming traditional ones when it came to educating students from low-income families.

The reporters’ hard work paid off, but as Beth Shuster, the education editor of the Los Angeles Times, pointed out, many journalists don’t have the access, time, or resources available to do this kind of reporting.  

“How we can report these stories without taking a year and a half of our lives?” she asked panelists during a session on covering school choice at the Education Writers Association’s 68th National Seminar last month in Chicago.

Here are three tips that emerged from their discussion:

Make Tough Choices as a Reporter

“I’m often looking for the enterprise story that I can get done for the weekend,” said Erin Richards, an education reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “and this means spending some time thinking about what might be worth doing a deeper dive on.”

Choosing a specific question that can be answered by analyzing available data is the best way to ensure a clear story emerges, on time, from your reporting, she suggested. Picking something that’s too broad might leave you overwhelmed by all the information out there, but choosing something too narrow might have you pining after data sets districts won’t ever release.

For a story on Milwaukee’s longstanding school voucher program, Richards decided to look at the number of private school students receiving vouchers in the city. Once she knew which private schools had clusters of voucher students, she could give readers a better sense of how the program was operating citywide.

Cover Charter Board Meetings

If reporters are starved for sources or stories, panelists agreed that charter school board meetings are undercovered and potentially rich territory to mine.

“Big network charters will have very professional boards,” explained Alan Gottlieb, the co-founder of the nonprofit Chalkbeat — an online education news outlet — but smaller schools’ meetings can often be a little less polished, sometimes downright dramatic. “Who knows what you would find if you went to these meetings?” he said.

Most schools advertise board meetings online, but if meeting times aren’t available, Richards suggests calling the schools to inquire and letting them know if you plan to attend.

Interviewing board members at these meetings can also lead to important stories. Higgins and her colleagues discovered, through conversations with charter school board members, that some were unaware of how much money their schools spent on rent.

“We found board members who didn’t even know they were paying a million dollars in rent for their school,” she said.

Be Creative

When schools clam up and refuse to release data you’ve requested, look for alternative ways to get the same numbers, the panelists suggested. For example, since charter schools are often hit with the charge that they don’t enroll enough students with disabilities, Richards was interested in finding the number of such students enrolled in Milwaukee private schools that accept vouchers. Though she said the schools didn’t want to release the data, she was able to get an approximation because state tests that they administer request the information. (She found that the schools enrolled a very small percentage of special ed students.)

Though reporting on school choice can be time-consuming, because it requires juggling data sets from both government departments and independent schools, this doesn’t usually mean taking a hiatus from daily news reporting.

While Higgins and her colleagues were reporting their series on Michigan’s charter schools, they were simultaneously reporting and writing daily stories.

“We still had to feed the Web,” she said.