Slate’s Revamped Education Coverage Yields Mixed Results (So Far)

The good news is that Slate’s collaboration with The Teacher Project will continue. The bad news is that the weekly education column is gone and that Slate has published a questionable story of the type more commonly found at other outlets like Salon or The Progressive.

One of the small but noteworthy changes in mainstream education coverage during 2016–2017 is taking place over at Slate, a mainstream online news outlet that has generally produced smart if not always stellar education coverage through a mix of outside contributors, a columnist/blogger, as well as through other partnerships.

The good news is that the ongoing collaboration with Columbia University’s Teacher Project will continue this year, and that Slate continues to make occasional use of experienced education reporters like Dana Goldstein, currently at The Marshall Project.

The bad news is that the education blogger/columnist role has been eliminated, and a collaboration with The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund has produced a narrow, unbalanced look at the important issue of charter schools and unionization.

It’s the type of story that Slate does not usually publish. But there it is — and Slate appears to be standing by the piece despite its quite obvious journalistic flaws.

THE TEACHER PROJECT CONTINUES

First, the good news. Continuing from last year is the collaboration with Columbia J-School’s Teacher Project, which produced the big series, Tomorrow’s Test, from last spring, and is edited by Sarah Carr.

Pictured above, there are three new Teacher Project writers this year — Francesca Berardi, whose Twitter bio describes her as a Harlem-based journalist who is a fan of Detroit, Zoë Kirsch, formerly of Philadelphia Magazine, and Stephen Smiley, “former state political reporter for @abcnewsTas in Australia.”

Illustrious Teacher Project alumni include Madeleine Cummings, now a staff reporter at the Edmonton Examiner, Matt Collette, who’s developing podcasts at WNYC, Jessica Huseman, a ProPublica senior reporting fellow, Miriam Hall, and Alex Neason, now a staff writer at the Village Voice whose piece about Detroit schools was recently published in Harper’s.

ABANDONED EDUCATION COLUMN

Alas, the education columnist/blogger role previously written by Laura Moser is no more. Moser’s columns ran until the end of June, ending about a year of frequent education coverage.

According to media representatives for Slate, “we’re moving resources this year from blogging to two big investigative projects and occasional dispatches.”

That’s too bad. Moser was new to the education beat but found some good opportunities to weigh in, and her pieces were a welcome toehold for education coverage at a mainstream online outlet.

PARTNERSHIP WITH THE INVESTIGATIVE FUND

Most worrisome of all, the site’s partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute produced an extremely problematic story about how charter schools react to unionization efforts.

The piece opens with a harrowing scene in which an LA charter school teacher is confronted by a county sheriff who has been summoned by the head of school over the teacher’s leafletting other teachers in the parking lot before school one morning.

According to the story, written by freelancer Hella Winston, an unpublished 10-state, 50-school survey “reveals that administrators engage in a wide variety of tactics to try to prevent that percentage from growing. These actions include harassment and outright intimidation of teachers by the administration; anti-union appeals to school parents and, in some cases, even students; the use of hired guns to try to influence teachers and others to oppose unionization; and the deployment of a variety of management strategies to stall the unionization process, leaving the teachers and schools in limbo.”

Indeed, some of the things that charter schools have done to try and block teachers from organizing have been objectionable and in some cases unlawful. (Several times now, they’ve been forced to rehire and give back pay to employees fired for organizing their colleagues.) Some of the practices described — threats, retaliation, and legal challenges — are upsetting to read about.

Concerns about the story do not include any questions about errors of fact. However, the Slate piece raises a series of questions:

MISSING PARENT VOICES

The voices and views reflected in the piece are nearly all the voices of pro-unionization teachers who are much more likely to be white and college-educated than the parents and students in the communities they are serving.

The immediate interests of students and parents are largely left out. This is an enormous problem. Slate’s narrative spends little if any time talking to parents of students attending schools to get their views of the situation. Are they joining teachers on the picket lines, or do they oppose what’s being tried?

These parents — many of them low-income parents of color — are referred to in passive terms, as respondents rather than as independent actors who could if they chose to oppose or support unionization, or choose another kind of school.

There’s also little if any contextualizing reference to the pre-existing traditional public school system, which is rife with its own set of inequalities and generates no shortage of complaints from teachers about how their schools are run.

Winston declined to be interviewed about her story.

WHAT ABOUT IMPACT & DIVERSE VIEWPOINTS?

From the perspective of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a charter network whose efforts to prevent unionization are chronicled in the piece, no coverage of the organizing effort is good coverage. But, according to Alliance, reporter Winston gave them very little opportunity to participate in the piece, asking them mainly about a newly-filed lawsuit that the network felt unable to respond to publicly.

The piece also fails to note Alliance’s academic impact. Academic results for Alliance students “were completely off the table” in the Slate story, according to Alliance’s Catherine Suitor.

In addition, there’s no mention in the piece that the evidence that unionized charter schools do as good or better at educating children, attracting better teachers, or even reducing turnover in charter schools, is quite limited. The presumption is that organizing is beneficial — good for teachers and kids.

Last but not least, diverse viewpoints from charter teachers are few and far between in Winston’s piece. “Our teachers have very, very different points of view,” said Suitor about Alliance teachers. But in the Slate piece there are no teacher voices that were opposed to organizing, or even ambivalent.

FUNDING & DISCLOSURE QUESTIONS

According to pro-charter advocate Peter Cook, the Slate piece is “a skewed portrayal of the anti-union tactics of charter schools” that “reads a lot more like pro-union advocacy” than anything else. According to Cook, “Winston sets out to portray charter school leaders as villains, union organizers as heroes, and cherry-picks facts and anecdotes to make her case.”

Cook overstates the case, and makes claims about financial connections between The Investigative Fund and the American Federation of Teachers that are murkier than they might appear at first.

According to Cook and another education advocate, RiShawn Biddle, the AFT has funded the Investigative Fund’s parent organization, The Nation Institute, and The Nation.

The Investigative Fund says it has not received any AFT funding. “We are unaware of any institutional donors to The Investigative Fund funders with direct interest in the issue of charter schools and organizing,” said a representative from the Fund.

The Fund’s donors are listed here. They include the Ford Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and the Open Society Foundations — but not the AFT.

Asked specifically about the AFT, the response was that “They have never given money to The Investigative Fund.”

According to the AFT, the union has sponsored annual galas hosted by The Nation Institute but has given no funding to the Investigative Fund.

Even if the AFT has given funding to the Nation Institute, the Fund’s parent organization, it may not have been distributed to the Fund. “One hundred percent of our budget is raised specifically for The Investigative Fund to support our journalism,” according to the Fund representative. “A portion of those funds are paid in overhead to The Nation Institute, our parent organization.”

BY COMPARISON

The shortcomings of the Slate story are especially vivid when it is compared to a June, 2015 version of the same piece published by The American Prospect and titled When Charters Go Union. Written by Rachel Cohen, the TAP piece lays out the challenges and tensions involved in union efforts to organize charter school teachers, and the challenges charter advocates face when teachers express a desire to organize.

“Traditional unions are grappling with how they can both organize charter teachers and still work politically to curb charter expansion. Charter school backers and funders are trying to figure out how to hold an anti-union line, while continuing to market charters as vehicles for social justice.”

The TAP piece also takes readers behind the scenes, explaining how the AFT has adopted a “dual strategy” of critiquing low-performing charters while also embarking on a series of organizing efforts. The TAP version of the Slate story acknowledges that “unionized charters are not a panacea,” including a quote from AFT head Randi Weingarten about the tensions and tradeoffs of charter unionization.

Did Winston or her editors try and reach charter organizations or school administrators and get no response? Did Winston or her editors try and reach charter teachers who were opposed to organizing, or who started out in favor but became concerned later on?

It’s hard to tell. In the entire 4,000 word story, there’s just one instance in which a charter school advocate is allowed to voice an alternative view or address criticisms raised in the piece.

SLATE’S DEFENSE

Asked about the reporting and editing of the piece, a Slate representative responded that “Slate only works with partners whose editorial integrity and independence we have complete confidence in. The Nation Investigative Fund is one of those partners. In addition, all pieces are edited and vetted internally at Slate as well, as this piece was.”

As to the specific concern about alternative views and opportunities to address criticism, a Slate representative responded that “the piece reflects both the broad arguments advanced by charter schools and their advocates as well as the specific arguments of individual chains.”

Related posts:

How The Atlantic’s CUNY Story Went (So) Wrong
Efforts To Recruit More Journalists Of Color (To Cover Education)
Equity Symposium To Highlight Ford Foundation-Funded Education Journalism
An Easy Way For Slate To Tighten Up Disclosure For “Schooled”

Disclosures: I was a 2009 Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia’s J-School, and have approached the Emerson Collective for support for expanding THE GRADE. My 2011 book chronicles the first year of a unionized LA charter high school. In its first year, this column was generously supported by the American Federation of Teachers. I have written a handful of stories for Slate.