Background: In recent years, charter schools have received a great deal of media attention, appearing in documentary films, newspaper articles, magazine profiles, television news programs, and even sitcoms and feature films. The media is not alone in its interest in charter schools; researchers in the public and for-profit arenas have also focused their attention on charter schools in recent years.
Questions: This paper employs qualitative content analysis to answer the following questions: What information have journalists contributed to the charter school debate in the United States? And how might this information have shaped or influenced the debate?
Research Design: To answer these questions, we conducted a qualitative content analysis of print media coverage of the early years of the charter school debate. We analyzed 145 articles about public charter schools and public alternative schools that appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times between 1994 and 2006. We developed two types of coding categories: descriptive and interpretive. The descriptive coding categories captured the following information about each article in our dataset: the publisher, the type of school described and the student population. The interpretive coding categories captured reporters’ descriptions of the students, teachers, resources, and institutional cultures of charter and alternative schools.
Findings: Our analysis uncovered several interesting themes. First, we found that print media depictions of charter and alternative school teachers tended to be more positive than media depictions of teachers in traditional public schools. This was especially true of print media coverage of charter schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color. Our analysis also cast doubt on a core assumption of the charter school debate; that charter schools’ approach to educating their students differs significantly from that of traditional public schools and public alternative schools. In their articles about charter schools that serve middle-income students, reporters described institutional cultures and pedagogical strategies identical to those found in alternative schools with similar student populations. When reporting on alternative schools that serve low-income students and/or students of color, reporters described pedagogical strategies that mirrored those found in charter schools with similar student populations.
Recommendations: Further research is needed to determine whether charter and alternative schools are educating their low- and middle-income students differently. If future research confirms this, we warn that charter and alternative schools could be preparing their low-income students and/or students of color inadequately for higher education and work in professional environments.