Last week, The Intercept published an article by Aída Chávez and Rachel Cohen claiming that education officials in Puerto Rico are planning to take over the territory’s traditional public schools and convert them to charters.
To put it bluntly, it’s a great work of fiction, but a terrible piece of journalism – one that’s piled high with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims. It also lacks any pretense of journalistic objectivity, presenting charter schools and the reformers behind them as boogeymen intent on destroying public education.
Although Chávez is a relative newcomer to the education reform war, for those who are familiar with Cohen’s previous work at the American Prospect, the anti-reform bias of this piece should come as no surprise. That being said, the issues in Chávez and Cohen’s recent article are particularly egregious and I’ve therefore decided to pick apart the six biggest problems below.
1. There is no evidence that officials are plotting to “privatize” Puerto Rico’s public schools.
Chávez and Cohen open their piece with a vignette about the struggle to reopen Escuela Adrienne Serrano, a small school on Vieques, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Although teachers and administrators almost immediately went to work to get the school up-and-running again, education officials told them they could not reopen until the building was inspected to ensure it was safe. The staff ignored the directive and began welcoming back kids until recently, when they ran out of potable water. Now, they have to turn students away.
On its face, it’s a small glimpse of the painstakingly slow pace of Puerto Rico’s recovery, but Chávez and Cohen assert the school’s plight is a consequence of something far more sinister:
“The guerrilla campaign to open schools is running headlong into a separate effort from the top, to use the storm to accomplish the long-standing goal of privatizing Puerto Rico’s public schools, using New Orleans post-Katrina as a model.”
That’s a pretty bold statement. Most journalists would want to provide evidence and additional context to substantiate such a claim. For example, who exactly has had the long-standing goal of privatizing the commonwealth’s public schools? What steps have those nameless figures taken in the past to advance it? How are they taking advantage of the disaster now to takeover schools? We’re never told the answers to any of these questions.
Instead, Chávez and Cohen cite an October news article (rough English translation here) in which the director of Puerto Rico’s Public-Private Partnership Authority “spoke optimistically about leveraging federal money with companies interested in privatizing public infrastructure.” However, if you actually read the article they link, you won’t find any mention of schools or the education system because the director was referring to a plan to outsource concessions and toll collection at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan.
How does that constitute proof of a plot to privatize public schools? I’m not sure either.
2. They distort statements made by P.R. Secretary of Education Julia Keleher (and Keleher herself).
Chávez and Cohen also insinuate that Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, intends to pursue New Orleans-style reforms by distorting her recent statements on social media, including the following tweet:
Sharing info on Katrina as a point of reference; we should not underestimate the damage or the opportunity to create new, better schools pic.twitter.com/Fmq59W4pKF
— Julia Keleher (@SecEducacionPR) October 27, 2017
To the authors, this is proof that Keleher has “already called New Orleans’s school reform efforts a ‘point of reference.’ ” But was she referring to NOLA school reforms or the challenge of rebuilding schools destroyed in a disaster? The fact that her tweet includes photos of construction sites and a newly built school suggest it’s the latter.
Before turning to other matters, the authors add that Keleher ran a management consulting firm prior to her appointment as Secretary of Education, while curiously omitting more relevant biographic details, like the six years she spent at the U.S. Department of Education or the seven she served as a district administrator. Are they trying to suggest to readers that she comes from the business world and therefore must be a “corporate privatizer” hellbent on dismantling Puerto Rico’s public schools? Me thinks so.
3. No, Jeanne Allen wasn’t involved in New Orleans’ school reform efforts.
Next, Chávez and Cohen turn to Jeanne Allen, CEO of the Center for Education Reform, who true to form, tells them exactly what they want to hear. Allen says she believes reformers “should be thinking about how to recreate the public education system in Puerto Rico,” and hopes that both brick-and-mortar and virtual charters will turn their attention to the island.
Of course, Allen is entitled to her opinions, but that doesn’t mean anyone is listening to them. In fact, she admits that folks in the reform community haven’t been talking about Puerto Rico at all, which undermines the contention that they’re working from the top down to seize control of the public schools.
Chávez and Cohen also make the confounding claim Allen was “involved in the New Orleans school reform efforts,” which has no basis in fact. It’s hard to see how Allen could have been involved, when she was running the Center for Education Reform over 1000 miles away in Washington, D.C. at the time.
When I raised this issue with Cohen on Twitter, she never responded. I guess I can understand the silence. I mean, who cares about facts when you’re selling readers a bill of goods?
4. They make up facts about New Orleans’ post-Katrina school reforms.
The truth continues to take a beating when Chávez and Cohen turn to the transformation of New Orleans public schools:
“Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana lawmakers granted the state’s so-called Recovery School District authority to take over underperforming New Orleans public schools. More than 100 schools were converted to charters, which are publicly funded and privately managed. Today, New Orleans is the only city in the nation to have a school system comprised entirely of charters.”
First of all, the Recovery School District didn’t turn more than 100 schools into charters. The city hasn’t even had 100 schools operating in the city at any one time since the storm. Second, as I’ve repeated ad nauseam over the past several years, there are a handful of traditional public schools still operating in New Orleans – i.e., the school system is not entirely comprised of charter schools.
5. They misrepresent Doug Harris’ research on the academic progress made in New Orleans.
Anyone who wants to debunk the success of New Orleans’ reforms has to deal with Doug Harris.
Harris, a professor of economics and director of the Education Research Alliance at Tulane University, co-authored what is considered to be the most comprehensive study of the progress made in the city’s schools since Hurricane Katrina.
What did his research find? Here’s how Harris summed it up in the pages of Education Next:
“For New Orleans, the news on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. The reforms seem to have moved the average student up by 0.2 to 0.4 standard deviations and boosted rates of high school graduation and college entry. We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”
In their piece, Chávez and Cohen acknowledge the progress in New Orleans, but misrepresent Harris’ conclusions, writing: “Harris’s research shows the city’s schools have improved over the last decade, in part by increasing school funding.” They also link to an interview with Harris in The 74, in an attempt to back their assertion that increased funding can explain the boost in academic achievement.
But once again, if you actually read the interview in The 74, you’ll find that Harris repeatedly discounts the role funding played in the improvements:
“It’s pretty unlikely that that’s the explanation…In fact, I think the increase in spending was almost certainly a necessary component of the reforms because to be able to attract people down here you needed to pay people well. And you needed to put in resources to get things going…I think probably every element of the reform package, including the change in spending, probably contributed in some fashion, but I think there’s not much reason to think that it was all about the money.”
Later in the interview, Harris reiterates this point, saying: “Again, I would say it’s true that putting more money into the schools does have some positive effect, but again looking at past research there’s not any reason to think that just doing those things would have generated this kind of an effect.”
In sum, Harris didn’t find that funding played a significant role in generating the academic gains seen in New Orleans, but Chávez and Cohen intentionally leave readers with the impression that it did.
6. They spin a conspiratorial narrative around bureaucratic inefficiency.
Chávez and Cohen spend the balance of their article enumerating all of the challenges that have prevented schools from reopening: bureaucratic red tape, an incompetent school inspection process, and a preexisting fiscal crisis that has hobbled the Puerto Rican government’s ability to respond. All the while, they suggest that the slow pace of reopening schools is actually part of a plan, hatched by government officials and others, that “foreshadows permanent closures and school privatization.”
Yet for those of us who have actually experienced the aftermath of a major natural disaster, many of the complaints recounted by the authors sound strikingly familiar. Overwhelming and often competing needs, combined with the inefficiencies inherent in any large-scale government undertaking, mean that recovery efforts almost never move fast enough for those awaiting assistance.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was 13 weeks before the first public school in New Orleans reopened. In the case of Avery Alexander, a school in the Gentilly neighborhood of the city that was inundated by floodwaters during the storm, it took 12 years. Moreover, sluggish progress wasn’t unique to the school system. The Road Home Program, which was established to distribute federal funds to rebuild in areas impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, became a widely-reviled symbol of bureaucratic incompetence. It took years for Road Home to distribute more than $9 billion in grants to homeowners, a job that the program is still in the process of completing nearly 13 years after the storm.
None of this was the result of a conspiracy; it is the nature of the beast. It’s why we call events like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria “disasters,” not “temporary inconveniences.” Chávez and Cohen’s attempt to spin a conspiratorial narrative around the plight of Puerto Rico’s public schools is irresponsible journalism, and it’s unhelpful to Hurricane Maria’s victims and unfair to officials who are scrambling to reopen schools as quickly as possible.
Capital & Lame A Case Study In How Teachers Unions Influence The Media
“What the privatizers are doing is they keep selling the same snake oil, school choice, as the answer to the problem. School choice doesn’t answer any problem. The biggest correlation in education is between poverty and test scores. If you think the test scores are too low, go to the root causes.”
That’s what Diane Ravitch had to say to freelance journalist Bill Raden in an interview published last week by Capital & Main, which describes itself as “an award-winning online publication that reports from California on the most pressing economic, environmental and social issues of our time.”
If you’re familiar with Capital & Main, you know Ravitch’s sentiments are pretty much par-for-the-course when it comes to their education coverage. In addition to softball interviews with folks like Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten, they’ve published unflattering profiles of reform advocates such as Los Angeles school board member Nick Melvoin, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and Gap co-founder Doris Fisher. Charter schools are also a favorite target for abuse in the pages of Capital & Main, whether they’re comparing them to fast-food franchises or portraying them as profit-seeking corporate enterprises.
But even if the name Capital & Main doesn’t ring a bell, it’s quite possible you’ve encountered their work without even realizing it. Over the past few years, they’ve co-published dozens of articles with mainstream news organizations, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, Newsweek, Time, Slate, Pacific Standard, Fast Company, and the International Business Times. Their pieces have also appeared on less reputable news sites, such as The Nation, The American Prospect, Salon, Huffington Post, and AlterNet, among others.
With their heightened profile has come praise from the journalism community. In August, Capital & Main won three Los Angeles Press Club awards for pieces it reported in collaboration with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Plus, in 2016, the L.A. Press Club named Bill Raden its “Online Journalist of Year” for his work in Capital & Main, including “Schooled for Failure: California’s K-12 Crisis,” an article co-published with Pacific Standard, which asks, “What if it turned out that education reform, with its teacher-blaming assumptions, got it all wrong in the first place?”
A front for organized labor
The accolades Capital & Main has received from journalists and the legitimacy conferred to them by mainstream media outlets is not only surprising, but also disturbing in our age of “fake news.” I say this because although they pose as a non-profit news organization, they’re essentially a front for organized labor – including the teachers unions – and as such, work to further the unions’ agenda.
Capital & Main was originally launched by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), back in 2013 (LAANE actually owned Capital & Main’s web domain until at least May of this year, when it was renewed anonymously). Of LAANE’s 16 board members, seven are officials from unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, two work for organizations (UCLA Labor Center and California Calls) that have received funding from AFT, and one is an organizer with the California Teachers Association.
— LAANE (@LAANE) November 12, 2014
In November 2015, Capital & Main registered as its own 501(c)(3) organization, but the spinoff from LAANE appears to be largely cosmetic, as the two organizations still share the same office in the Westlake section of Los Angeles (along with another union-affiliated group, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). Plus, Capital & Main’s publisher, Danny Feingold, previously worked as LAANE’s communications director and another long-time LAANE employee serves on its board of directors.
The unions have also retained their influence over Capital & Main in the wake of the split. Its board includes officials from the California School Employees Association, SEIU California State Council, United Nurses Association of California, and California Teachers Association. They’re joined by Harold Meyerson, the executive editor of The American Prospect, which has received $310,000 from AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) over the past four years.1 In addition, Capital & Main has received substantial funding from various labor organizations since it was founded by LAANE, including $110,000 from the California Federation of Teachers.
Although legitimate news organizations would take pains to acknowledge these potential conflicts-of-interest, you won’t find disclosures about Capital & Main’s ties to organized labor appended to their reports on education or other relevant topics. The same goes for those articles co-published by other media outlets.
Are LAANE and Capital & Main breaking the law?
When unions report their expenditures on their annual reports to the U.S. Department of Labor, they have to classify them into one of five categories: Contributions, Gifts and Grants; General Overhead; Political Activities; Representational Activities; and Union Administration.
Each of these categories are clearly defined by the Department of Labor. For example, the agency defines “Political Activities” expenditures this way:
“A political disbursement or contribution is one that is intended to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of anyone to a Federal, state, or local executive, legislative or judicial public office, or office in a political organization, or the election of Presidential or Vice Presidential electors, and support for or opposition to ballot referenda. It does not matter whether the attempt succeeds.”
Why does this matter? Because many of the contributions given by the unions to LAANE and Capital & Main – such as those from the California Federation of Teachers – are reported as “Political Activities” expenditures. However, LAANE and Capital & Main are 501(c)(3) organizations and are therefore prohibited by both federal law and California law from engaging in political activities.
In fact, earlier this spring, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that he intends to crackdown on tax-exempt organizations that are engaging in politics.
“When you come up with these benevolent names for your organizations and what you’re really doing is out there doing politics and political backstabbing, I don’t think most Americans expected that that would be the use of the not-for-profit legal status,” Becerra said at a May press conference. “The last thing I think most people want to find out is that all these groups that are getting tax breaks because they are not-for-profit are actually going out there and influencing our political system.”
Whether or not their activities on behalf of the unions rise to a level that would put their non-profit status at risk is unclear, but the fact that Capital & Main has accepted money from labor organizations that is explicitly intended to further political aims shreds any claim they have as a legitimate journalistic enterprise. It also calls into question the due diligence of those mainstream news outlets that have published Capital & Main’s work, presenting it to readers as objective journalism rather than political advocacy.
Perhaps this is something we should keep in mind the next time one side of the education reform debate accuses the other of selling snake oil.
- A few more interesting facts about The American Prospect: They’re housed in the offices of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning D.C.-based think tank established in 1986 with the support of eight AFL-CIO unions. Robert Kuttner, co-founder of The American Prospect, serves on EPI’s board, along with AFT president Randi Weingarten and NEA president Lily Eskelsen García. AFT and NEA have also contributed more than $2.3 million to EPI since 2013. ↩
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