LA Times’ ‘Independent’ Education Project Bankrolled by Charter School Backers

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LA Times’ ‘Independent’ Education Project Bankrolled by Charter School Backers

Above, first-graders at San Pedro Elementary in Los Angeles. With the start of a new school year, the Los Angeles Times announced new coverage of teaching and learning in the city's school district. The question remains: How far will this coverage goes when it comes to challenging the corporate education reformers, some of whom are bankrolling the new education beat? (Photo: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times (8/18/15) announced an initiative called Education Matters, “an ongoing, wide-ranging report card on K-12 education in Los Angeles, California and the nation.” The project will cover educational issues, including “the latest debate on curriculum or testing” and “how charter schools are changing public education.”

The Times, owned by Tribune Publishing, will fund Education Matters with donations and grants from philanthropic organizations like the Baxter Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation. “These institutions, like the Times,” publisher and CEO Austin Beutner writes, “are dedicated to independent journalism that engages and informs its readers.”

The problem with Education Matters’ promise to create “independent journalism,” however, is that several of the organizations funding it have a direct stake in a very specific education reform agenda. Education reform, as a project, is far from value-neutral: Reformers promote specific policies, ranging from firing teachers based on their students’ test scores to replacing public schools with privately run charter schools. Their rhetoric often directly attacks teachers unions and even public education as an institution, in favor of “market-driven” “school choice” solutions. And the organizations funding the LA Times’ new project are no exception.

The Broad Foundation, in particular, has a prodigious record. According to its website, Broad currently invests in organizations that invest in charter-school expansion, including Aspire Public Schools (whose goal is to “expand its network of public charter schools in the Los Angeles area”), the California Charter School Association, the Charter School Growth Fund, charter loan provider Excellent Education Development, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, Green Dot Public Schools (a charter network), the KIPP Foundation, New Schools Venture Fund, Pacific Charter School Development, Silicon Valley-based charter management organization Rocketship Education, Success Charter Network and Uncommon Schools. It funded the popular pro-charter documentary Waiting for Superman. It also invests in the US Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” grant program.

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Two of the other three donors that the Times lists have also invested in charter school expansion and an education reform agenda. The Wasserman Foundation, which describes its education-related giving as “focused on transforming our public schools,” has partnered with Broad and the Gates Foundation to fund senior staffer positions in the LA school district. As reported by the LA Times itself (4/7/06), it gave $6 million to a local charter network; it’s also given to Teach for America.

And the Baxter Family foundation says its mission is to “restructure the present system to create effective competition in the market for educational services.” It promises to “sponsor and/or undertake research that will analyze alternative solutions to the problems plaguing our public schools, including private and charter schools.”

The other foundation, the California Endowment, focuses primarily on health initiatives in schools and communities.  

While it won’t be Broad or Wasserman themselves writing the new stories at the LA Times, it’s dubious that “independent journalism” will be funded, in part, via foundations so powerful in the education reform movement. Just like all journalism, education coverage must be adversarial to those in power–and right now, in education, reformers have a great deal of power.

The reform movement itself should be covered thoroughly and critically. In the past few years, news outlets like the New York Times have begun to investigate disciplinary practices at the popular Success Academy network (4/6/15), charters’ disproportionately low numbers of students with disabilities and English Language Learners (3/16/15), and their high suspension rates (2/11/15).

What will Education Matters’ approach be to covering Los Angeles education stories that involve projects currently funded by those paying for the coverage? What will their approach be to adversarially covering education reform? How critical will they be of programs like Race to the Top and Teach for America, and of politicians like Arne Duncan, who will be featured as a guest columnist?  

As Rudy Crew, former New York City school chancellor and now a USC education professor,  said when the LA school chancellor took money from Broad and Wasserman to fund administrative positions: “He’s using their money; they get to set the agenda.”

Devoting more resources to dedicated education coverage is crucial, especially in the midst of a nationwide battle over the future of public education. But getting one side in the battle to fund “independent journalism” is not the way to do it.

Molly Knefel

Molly Knefel is a journalist and co-host of the daily political podcast Radio Dispatch. She is also an elementary and middle school teacher at a public school in the Bronx. Follow her on Twitter: @mollyknefel

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