Mainstream Media Misleads Readers on School Choice Study

Published January 1, 2008

A report titled “Fixing Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform,” released by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI) on October 23, shows why readers should do more than glance at newspaper headlines to gather the gist of the day’s news.

This was the headline on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s front-page story about the report: “Choice may not improve schools, study says/Report on MPS comes from longtime supporter of plan.”

Because Milwaukee is home to the nation’s largest program of publicly financed vouchers enabling parents to choose private schools for their children, the headline implied a study by an organizational supporter of choice had questioned vouchers’ effectiveness.

False Attribution

In fact, the 14-page study did not examine the voucher program at all. Nor did it look at another significant school choice program in Milwaukee–independently run public charter schools.

Instead, the study addressed only the extent to which Milwaukee parents were choosing carefully among regular public schools. The study did not rely on local data, but rather used national data to “estimate” only 10 percent of Milwaukee Public Schools parents were doing an astute consumer’s cost/benefit analysis to choose among multiple public schools. The study concluded, “it seems unlikely that MPS schools are feeling the pressure of a genuine educational marketplace.”

If parents ought to be wise consumers of education, so should readers be wise consumers of newspapers. It wasn’t just the Journal Sentinel headline that gave a false impression in this case.

Misleading Story

The lead sentence of the Journal Sentinel article, by Alan J. Borsuk, flatly stated the study suggested “school choice isn’t a powerful tool for driving educational improvement in Milwaukee Public Schools.”

The second paragraph asserted, “more surprising than the conclusion is the organization issuing the study: the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank that has supported school choice for almost two decades, when Milwaukee became the nation’s premier center for trying the idea.”

Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program began in 1990.

The article went on to review the newspaper’s own investigative report, published in 2005, that alleged about 10 percent of schools in the voucher program exhibited signs of “weak operations.” It then cited other criticisms of vouchers.

The clear insinuation was that the new study by WPRI was all about vouchers, known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

Public Choice

Not until the 12th paragraph did the Journal Sentinel report that the WPRI study exclusively examined parental choice among regular public schools–specifically, parents who select public schools within MPS or in the suburbs under Wisconsin’s open-enrollment law.

“It does not discuss parents who select private schools in the publicly funded voucher program or charter schools not affiliated with MPS,” the article stated at that late point. A reader never would have guessed that from the headline and first 11 paragraphs.

George Lightbourn, a WPRI senior fellow, wrote a guest column for The Capital Times of Madison on November 2 pointing out the Journal Sentinel headline “not only misrepresented the study [but also] energized those who are dying to go back to the days when parents were forced to send their children to whichever MPS school the educrats thought best.”

Lightbourn emphasized, “school choice is working” and WPRI continues to support it.

Careful Readers

In an October 25 statement, Susan Mitchell, president of School Choice Wisconsin, pointed out the Journal Sentinel article itself, not just the headline, was “highly misleading. … The Journal Sentinel article does not address how a study that excludes major choice programs can reach definitive conclusions about the impact of choice.”

A final lesson for discerning readers is that they should not only read newspaper stories to the final paragraph, but they also should get a copy of the study being reported (usually found online) and read it in its entirety, not just the executive summary–or listen to organizations and individuals that have done so. They should pay particular attention to methodology.

In the flawed WPRI study, researcher David Dodenhoff attempted to estimate how extensive public school choice and parental involvement are within MPS. He drew from U.S. Department of Education and Census Bureau data on family and community involvement, and extrapolated to Milwaukee, relying in particular on the demographics of MPS. The district has a higher proportion of minority, single-parent, and low-income families than the national average.

Dodenhoff observed, “disadvantaged parents may not have the time, energy, information, understanding, or confidence to become active, effective public-school consumers.”

Forthcoming Analysis

The study used no data from the local district, nor any interviews with or surveys of Milwaukee parents.

“We agree with the study’s conclusion that Milwaukee Public Schools … must work with MPS parents to help them realize their options,” said Christina Hentges, a staff assistant at the Washington, DC-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. However, she added, “the study would benefit immensely from including information specific to Milwaukee.”

Mitchell said “a more deliberate review of the report” will be forthcoming. “It will address factual errors and analyze the study’s controversial methodology.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“Fixing the Milwaukee Public Schools: The Limits of Parent-Driven Reform,” by David Dodenhoff, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, October 2007:

“Choice may not improve schools, study says,” by Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 23, 2007:

“The truth about choice in public schools,” by George Lightbourn, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, October 2007: