IL Raise Your Hand has come out with a news release purporting to show that 47 percent of charters are under-enrolled and there were 11,000 unused charter school seats. Wow. That's a big number. No surprise that CTU started using the eye-grabbing statistic as soon as it came out. But wait a minute -- what do CPS and charter school folks say about the number, and how should the media treat ILRYH, anyway?
Over the last couple of years in particular, ILRYH has won a lot of credit and attention for finding fault with CPS statistics and coming up with alternative methods of calculating school capacity and utilization rates. But poking holes in other folks' numbers is easier than coming up with your own figures and being able to defend them (I should know, it's what I do all day), and more and more ILRYH seems like it's veered from independent, dispassionate analysis towards full-throated advocacy.
Not that there's anything wrong with advocacy, but it's not the same as independent analysis.
So the ILRYH story goes out and CTU started using the 47 percent number almost immediately, treating it as fact:
"Ironically, the justification for today’s vote, according to Chicago Public School (CPS) leaders, is to “relieve overcrowding,” even though 47 percent of all existing charters are underutilized with more than 11,000 un-used seats.
Fine, no problem. Advocacy is good.
But then at least a couple of Chicago news outlets started using it, too.
In The News from Catalyst has this headline: 47% of charters underenrolled, data show, followed by a description of the press release that gives no indication that it's unverified and comes from a group that criticizes charters.
DNA Info included the number in its charter approvals story without any comment or caveat.
Ditto for Mark Anderson, who tossed the number into a recent NBC column.
Others may disagree, but in my eyes it would have been better if anyone who used the ILRYH number to have noted that it might be disputed and came from an advocacy group with a long history of criticizing charters.
Even better, someone might have asked CPS and INCS about the RYH numbers, and considered what they had to say before tossing the number around.
I did, and was told enough -- the numbers don't account for new charters growing into their buildings, and apparently don't include the majority of charter school students who go to schools that aren't housed in CPS buildings -- to raise some concerns that might warrant being tracked down or at least indicated in writing.
Yes, of course, the same is true for numbers coming out of pro-charter groups and from CPS and City Hall. In all cases, media outlets should make clear where the numbers they're using are coming from, whether or not they're disputed, and what if any response is out there from the other side. It's not that hard to do -- and it's the right thing, too.
In my perfect world, media outlets would also indicate where a story idea came from, where they found their sources, and other key facts.
Anyway, I've asked ILRYH what they think about the points CPS and INCS make, and will let you know what they say asap.