Changing The Story

This is a remarkable story.  Chris Barbic is founder of YES Prep.  Broad Prize winner for best charter network in the country.  I've visited.  Remarkable. 

Chris and his family moved to Tennessee.  Working there on turnaround schools. 

An event.  Chris was a speaker.  He was misquoted, sort of.  Not remarkable.  The reporters fixed it!  Remarkable.  Nashville Public Radio writes:

Never has revised wording on WPLN’s website been so closely scrutinized. So we figured it was worth explaining how a paraphrase of Achievement School District chief Chris Barbic went from saying he accepted charter school segregation to saying he acknowledged its existence...

...The Problem With ‘Acceptable’

Tuesday morning, after the story aired on the radio and published online, we received an email and subsequent call from Barbic’s chief of staff, Elliot Smalley. In a very polite way, he complimented the story and said diversity in charter schools is an important topic. Smalley said he could see how we would characterize his boss as accepting some segregation in charter schools. But he doesn’t think it’s acceptable, Smalley said.

Barbic’s point, Smalley said, is that schools of all kinds end up being segregated by race and class. So to expect charters to go above and beyond is unfair. “Acceptable” makes it sound like Barbic condones the inherent divide, and we get that distinction.

Unlike some people who call us asking for tweaks to a story, Elliot did not suggest an alternative. He simply made his point and asked that we reconsider the word “acceptable.” So we did, particularly since many of Barbic’s critics had begun using the line as if it were a direct quote, not a reporter’s characterization.

As reporters, we drone on and on about how we wish public officials would be more open and honest instead of speaking as if they’re at a press conference every time a microphone is on. In that way, Barbic’s candor is a breath of fresh air.

But openness has its drawbacks. It becomes much easier for something to be taken out of context or twisted to mean something that was never intended. We’d rather encourage more openness by going through the uncomfortable process of making a very public revision.

My reaction:

1. Huge huge props to the folks at Nashville Public Radio.  That sort of correction is just incredibly rare. 

2. Impressive work by this Elliott Smalley guy.  Sounds like a case study of how a classy, understated approach sometimes beats an angry "We wuz wronged" approach. 

3. There are fair questions about the population of any type of school.  Charters included. 

However, charter critics sometimes play both sides of the fence here.   A school which has more white students than the district is called "creaming."  But a school that has more black students than the district is called "segregated."  And a school with more black students therefore has fewer Hispanic students and is called "discriminating against English Language Learners."  Theoretically, a school could weight the lottery to exactly replicate the district, but the law doesn't allow it, and it's bad public policy to boot. 

No way to win in that set-up. 

4. Here in Boston, many of the same critics of "segregated" charter schools live nearby, in largely white suburbs, and are heavily involved in those schools.  Which is great.

There is a mechanism in Massachusetts which would allow a student in one district to attend school in another.  So a kid in Roxbury could, in theory, go to a suburban school. 

See if you can spot the catch.  According to state regulations:

The school choice program allows parents to send their children to schools in communities other than the city or town in which they reside. Tuition is paid by the sending district to the receiving district. Districts may elect not to enroll school choice students if no space is available.

Do suburban districts near Boston, even those with declining enrollment and therefore with space available, participate in this obvious way to diversify? 

This map might help, if you know where Boston is. 



See all those white areas with no families allowed to participate in choice?  Those are Boston suburbs. 

Instead, many districts participate in a tightly capped program called METCO (which I support, and which has a long waiting list, upwards of 15,000).  In the most typical suburban school, precisely one black Boston student, transported by bus, is placed in each suburban elementary class. 

Moreover, most of these communities have zoning laws that preclude "affordable housing" -- lower-cost apartments for families.  

My view is there's a disconnect here.  Again, always legitimate to explore the student composition of any school -- traditional, charter, pilot, online, etc.  But hard to personally advocate for suburban public school systems that massively limit black kids who live 15 minutes away from attending "your" schools, and then simultaneously critique a college prep charter that is 80% minority -- because it's drawing students from a a district that is 80% minority, or 70% minority, or 90% minority -- as "advancing segregation."  

Perhaps one day reporters as open as those at Knoxville Public Radio will take up their local version of that question.