Last week the Tribune wrote a series of editorials calling for better schools for Chicago children. The first two editorials began on the Tribune's front page, where both asserted that 19,000 students are waiting for places to the city's charter schools. "19,000 kids yearn to escape their current public schools for seats in charter schools . . ." said one editorial. Said the other editorial, "Suppose your child was one of the 19,000 Chicago students trapped on a waiting list for admission to a charter school. How infuriated would you be watching that child head to a dead-end classroom because he or she can't enroll at a charter that would deliver a stronger education?"
The 19,000 figure was arrived at by subtracting the number of kids admitted to each charter school or network of schools from the number of kids who applied, and then adding up the results. This Tuesday WBEZ and I both challenged the results. "In all likelihood," I wrote on this blog, "thousands of these children who can't wait don't exist." WBEZ said the figure "significantly overstates demand."
WBEZ and I argued that the Tribune was completely ignoring redundancy—the inclination of parents who want a better education for their children to apply to several schools (and not necessarily only to charters). How many of those 19,000 students yearning to escape their dead-end public schools but trapped on a waiting list were actually already attending a charter school—or perhaps a CPS magnet school, or perhaps a private school? The Illinois State Board of Education, where the raw numbers originated, could not say. The Illinois Network of Charter Schools, which hawks the 19,000 figure, could not say. And certainly the Tribune could not say.
There are other reasons to challenge the 19,000 figure, and we gave those too.
On Thursday the Tribune responded to the criticism with a new editorial, "The thirst for charter schools." It acknowledged the WBEZ critique, and explained that the "estimate" (a word that appeared in neither editorial) came from the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. The network's president, Andrew Broy, was brought on to defend the estimate. If redundancy was not factored in, said Broy, neither were charter schools that didn't report figures for the 2010-11 school year (the most recent year for which there's enrollment data) or that opened since then, and neither were applications that came in after the spring lottery period. "We feel the 19,000 number is strongly supported and is likely a conservative estimate," said Broy.
"Demand for great charters . . . shows no signs of flagging," said the conclusion of Thursday's Tribune editorial. "That's why the Chicago Public Schools system continues to authorize more charters. And why we strongly encourage that growth."
That much the Tribune can feel safe in saying. But let's note that it is now making it clear the 19,000 figure is an estimate, and it's Broy's estimate. If it is, in fact, not a "conservative estimate" but a grossly inflated estimate supported by neither data nor common sense—well, that's on Broy. Last week's editorials owned the number. Thursday's editorial only borrows it.