Crunch Time for Education Reporters
By Alexander Russo
New study highlights the challenges of covering charter school budget impact stories — and the importance of looking past press releases.
The impact of charter schools on traditional school district budgets has become a heated topic in recent months.
Do charter schools receive the funding that they and other kinds of schools she be given, according to the enrollment and needs of the students they serve? Or do they drain funding from traditional district systems in ways that are unfair, unforeseen, or otherwise problematic?
Figuring out how to cover this hot-button issue — which features starkly contradictory claims and arcane budgeting minutiae — is a serious challenge that is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The issue was central to the debate over Question 2 in Massachusetts, the measure that would have allowed an expansion of charter schools but was defeated. Over several months, state and local education reporters tried but failed to get to the bottom of the warring assertions that dominated the debate.
And it cropped up again at the end of November, after a report released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) about charter school impacts, authored by Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker, was picked up by a handful of news outlets.
A close look at the EPI report and a WHYY Philadelphia Public Radio story about it reveals a number of issues that could be extremely useful to education journalists in the weeks and months ahead.
These include questions about the proper way to identify a study’s sponsor and — perhaps most important — how to find and address discrepancies between a press release and the underlying report.
The first thing that anyone seems to have noted about the WHYY piece when it came out last week (Report: Don’t expand charters without examining consequences) wasthat it identified EPI as simply “left-leaning,” without further identifying that EPI receives some funding from the teachers unions: “The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute paper examined 11 school districts — including Philadelphia — that experienced dramatic charter growth since 2000.”
Education reformers in particular — pro-charter, pro-accountability advocates whose work is often funded by newer foundations like Gates, Broad, and Walton — complain mightily that journalists identify those funding sources much more rigorously and vigorously than financial support from progressive foundations or teachers unions. (Or, as education blogger Peter Cook put it so colorfully on Twitter, education reformers “can’t fart without the press asking if it was paid for by Walton, Broad.”)
In the hours after the WHYY story’s publication, some pro-charter writers including Beth Hawkins and RiShawn Biddle joined Cook in lambasting reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent for failing to identify the funding organizations with more precision. A former longtime journalist, Hawkins claimed that “customary practice is look to funding, try to signal potential conflicts/bias.”
Wolfman-Arent disagreed, noting, “This isn’t a report about teachers unions. Disclosures like that become slippery slopes.” He said he was aware of EPI’s union funding but had not told his editor about it.
Report author Baker, who was commissioned by EPI to study impact of charter schools and write the report, tended to agree with Wolfman-Arent about the dangers of overdoing organizational identifications. “I think this whole thing distracts from content and substance,” Baker wrote.
Other news outlets that wrote about the report handled the funding issue differently.
In the writeup produced by The American Prospect (The Right Way to Assess Charter Schools), information about the sponsoring organization and its funding sources are not mentioned. Neither were these included in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette version of the story (New study links Pa. charter school growth with loss of district resources).
Only the Philadelphia Inquirer (Trump’s choice for education secretary sparks debate) described EPI as a nonpartisan think tank whose union funding makes up more than a quarter of the total.
Journalists had mixed views:
An editor at WHYY didn’t seem particularly concerned: “While there is always room for more detailed descriptions of the players involved, I don’t feel there was any vital omission in the article’s description,” wrote Eugene Sonn, audio news director at WHYY.
“We encourage education reporters to identify relevant partisan affiliations of organizations or think tanks producing reports and research,” wrote Education Writers Association public editor Emily Richmond, referring reporters to EWA’s Making Sense of Education Research guidelines. “This would typically include mentioning its funders.” Of course, she noted, reporters should follow the policies of their individual publications.
Asked about the decision, Wolfman-Arent said, “I don’t typically note who the funders are — I just tend to just give a quick description. That’s the way I’ve done it.” The report wasn’t about teachers unions directly. “There are a million potential disclosures in every story.”
[Disclosure: The Grade has been supported by a number of education organizations including Education Post, which receives funding from the Broad and Walton foundations.]
Heated as it may have been, the debate over the proper identification of funding sources shouldn’t mask an even more intriguing aspect of WHYY’s EPI/charter impact story: Wolfman-Arent’s piece differs sharply from the press release put out by EPI on its own study.
The Baker study “failed to substantiate a central critique of the charter movement [that charter school growth hurts traditional school districts financially and otherwise],” according to Wolfman-Arent’s story. Baker “didn’t find any evidence of this phenomenon in his latest study. In fact he uncovered some data that suggest the opposite.”
According to Wolfman-Arent, a report commissioned and published by an organization that’s funded partially by teachers unions came up with a finding those unions would see as troubling: Districts were not affected as dramatically or meaningfully as some charter critics have claimed:
“Essentially, when big districts such as Philadelphia lose students they manage to consolidate services and overhead expenses in a way that allows them to run with similar efficiency,” Baker told Wolfman-Arent in the WHYY piece. “I found for the most part that the districts I was looking at on those particular issues adjusted reasonably.”
To be sure, charter schools represent a substantial loss of enrollment that affects district funding, Baker’s report said. Some districts have been affected more dramatically than others, depending in part on underlying state and local funding levels.
So far, however, according to the report summary written by Baker, “Districts have largely been able to achieve and maintain reasonable minimum school sizes, with only modest increases in the shares of children served in inefficiently small schools….”
This is a stark difference from the description in the EPI press release sent out to the media about the new study, which claimed it “finds that many school districts have lost enrollment and revenue due to charter school expansion, which has increased inequities in the educational experiences for students.”
What happened? Communications people know that reporters and editors frequently decided what to write about based on press releases and other forms of PR. Press releases frequently highlight information that the distributing organization thinks will be most appealing to harried reporters, and sometimes they even include incomplete or incorrect assertions.
However, Wolfman-Arent pretty much ignored the press release and went with the report and an interview with the researcher behind it.
Baker has expressed no objections to the Wolfman-Arent writeup of his study.
Asked about the discrepancies between the report and the press release, Baker said that he did review the draft press release and provide quotes but “must have missed the inconsistency” between the two documents.
Meanwhile, as noted by reporter Matt Barnum, a new story at The New Republic quotes from the questionable EPI press release.