One of the largest education-centric news outlets came under fire last week after it was revealed that they greatly misrepresented a proposed school choice program in Michigan.
Chalkbeat Detroit initially published what was intended to be an expose of a ballot initiative backed by former education secretary Betsy DeVos on May 25th. The initiative, they claimed, “would create scholarships to cover tuition to private K-12 schools.”
Chalkbeat added that “the initiative…has high stakes for all Michigan residents, as it could cost millions of dollars in revenue for the state and for schools.”
However, Ben DeGrow, who directs education policy at Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Policy, says that Chalkbeat’s initial write-up missed critical context — and that some of it was just plain wrong. For one, DeGrow’s fiscal analysis of the proposed initiative found that it could actually save both the state government and local school districts money.
“Beyond these benefits, the design of the program offers a potential cost savings to both the state government and local school agencies. This impact will depend on the average scholarship size granted and the rate of students who switch from public to nonpublic schools as part of the program,” the analysis said.
“Reasonable estimates indicate that thousands of students could be served with new needed options while public schools preserve and even continue to grow their revenues on a per-pupil basis,” the analysis continued.
However, the inaccuracies with the original article go far beyond fiscal impact quibbles — Chalkbeat got basic facts about the nature of the ballot initiative wrong.
More specifically, the original Chalkbeat article characterized the initiative as a voucher, meaning that it could only be used as private school tuition. In reality, however, “accounts could be used to pay for a wide variety of education expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring, dual enrollment and AP courses, after-school programs, special-needs therapy, career counseling and training, and education-related transportation.”
Most Michigan students would be eligible to receive funds, including those enrolled in public schools — both traditional and charter. Furthermore, any scholarship funds would go directly to family accounts as opposed to private schools. As such, Chalkbeat’s claim that the program would have no impact on charter school students misses essential context, while their claim that “the money would go to the schools that the qualifying students attend, not to the students themselves” is misleading at best.
In addition, Chalkbeat referred to circulator claims that the ballot initiative was meant to help children with special needs as “misleading,” despite the fact all special needs students living in Michigan would be eligible for the program.
It took a couple of days, but on May 27th, Chalkbeat finally added a correction, stating that “an earlier version of this story said the proposed scholarships could be used only for K-12 private school tuition. Families can also use them to pay for textbooks, tutoring, and other education expenses.”
In essence, a Chalkbeat story that amounted to “college students didn’t say what we wanted” had numerous (and serious) factual errors. As of the morning of May 31st, no other corrections have been made.