No words in the English language are more thoroughly guaranteed to scare a reader away — or put her to sleep — than “first in a five part series.”
So one savvy newspaper editor once taught me.
Give reporters Jean Rimbach and Abbott Koloff of NorthJersey.com some credit, I suppose, for daring to persist past that barrier. As for any readers who stayed with them all the way to the end of their recent “series in five parts” headlined “Millions of your tax dollars have disappeared into NJ’s flawed charter school experiment” — well, they deserve congratulations on their endurance, but condolences for having wasted many dozens of minutes on a flawed journalistic experiment.
For those lucky enough to have skipped the whole episode, it’s worth at least peeking in on as an example of how poorly the conventions of investigative journalism are suited, or have been applied in this case, to covering what’s basically an education policy issue. I promise to hold this look at it to a single installment.
Part of the investigative journalism racket, at least in this example, is framing news with negative innuendo, in a way that looks damning, even when nothing illegal has taken place and in fact many of the charter schools mentioned in the article have proven track records of having achieved impressive and praiseworthy results. So the first part of the article is headlined “cashing in on charter schools.” This is misleading, because the school operators and their real estate arms are nonprofits. And it’s a double standard, because plenty of work on non-charter, traditional public school facilities in New Jersey also involves contractors and building supply vendors that make profits.
The language of the newspaper article is so breathless — “This is the world of charter school real estate in New Jersey. Where public money can disappear in a maze of intertwined companies. Where businesses and investors can turn a profit at taxpayer expense.” It’s almost as if the reporters have no experience with capitalism, in which money doesn’t “disappear,” it just gets spent, the same way that traditional public schools spend money on computers from Apple or gasoline for use in school buses from ExxonMobil. The nonprofit New Jersey charter schools, with the help of small allied nonprofits, are spending money on occupying real estate.
Another trick of the journalist trade is to put the journalist’s own opinion in the mouths of “experts.”
In this case, the New Jersey reporters rely on Bruce Baker. They identify him as “a Rutgers University professor and a nationally recognized expert on education financing” and quote him as saying, “We’re putting a lot of public dollars into the acquisition of assets for private hands.”
The reporters also rely on Gordon Lafer. They identify him as “a political economist at the University of Oregon and a former adviser to the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor.” They quote him as saying, “There’s the ethical problem of buying private property with public dollars.” They introduce him with a paraphrase: “Experts say the movement of school buildings from public to private ownership raises a multitude of issues.”
Yet a third academic that the journalists identify as an “expert” is “Preston Green, a professor of education leadership and law at the University of Connecticut.” Green is quoted in the series as saying, “There has to be more regulation to guard against the types of abuses that we’re now seeing.”
You might wonder what these three professors have in common. It turns out that all of them have directly or indirectly accepted funding from labor unions, which have been hostile to charter schools. That funding isn’t disclosed by the investigative journalists to readers.
The journalists are intensely curious about the funding of the charter schools, but they don’t appear to devoted any kind of similar effort to researching the funding of the anti-charter-school “experts.” Lafer, for example, is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute. The chairman of the EPI board of directors is the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, and its board of directors includes the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Green and Baker are charter school critics who have compared charters to Enron and to pre-financial-crisis subprime mortgage lenders. Baker wrote a report on charter schools for the National Education Policy Center that was funded by “In the Public Interest,” an outfit that in turn is a project of the Partnership for Working Families, which is funded by — wait for it — the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. Baker’s curriculum vitae also discloses that he has accepted research funding from the Shanker Institute, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Green, too, wrote a report on charter schools for the National Education Policy Center. The report says it was funded by something called the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. And the Great Lakes Center turns out to be — you guessed it — funded by the National Education Association and its state union affiliates in New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
Now, in general, I prefer to conduct the education policy debate by looking at research and outcomes, or political philosophy, or the merits of the arguments, rather than following the financial trail of the researchers. But the financial details are worth delving into here, because they demonstrate how one-sided is the journalistic investigation of the charter schools. When charter schools work with other groups or money changes hands, the newspaper describes it by making it sound suspicious: “a maze of intertwined companies,” “cashing in,” “abuses,” “ethical problems.” When the charter school critics pass union money along to academics through front organizations, the journalists don’t disclose the money flow to newspaper readers, instead presenting the academics as neutral “experts.”
Another thing often missing from this sort of investigative reporting is a sense of perspective. So, for example, in a Reddit chat about their work, the reporters begin by telling people that their past work for the Bergen Record newspaper, which is now online at NorthJersey.com, includes a look at a “cold case murder” and “an alleged Luccese family soldier who was gunned down in a diner.” To mention reputable charter school networks like Uncommon Schools and KIPP in the same breath as murderers shows how far off the deep end these reporters have gone. Elsewhere in the same chat, the reporters insist, “We are not at all against charter schools. This story is not about academic results.”
One can easily understand why readers might have come away with the impression that the reporters do oppose charter schools. Maybe it was the “flawed experiment” headline. Maybe it was the mafia murder reference. For those who are interested in the academic results, the KIPP New Jersey website notes that the KIPP students outperform their peers in Newark and Camden public schools on standardized tests. North Star Academy, the Uncommon Schools charters in New Jersey, also has impressive results on tests and in college acceptances. Not so flawed an experiment, after all.
Readers seeking information about charter school facilities law in New Jersey would be better off skipping the five-part series and instead reading a 2018 op-ed in the Star-Ledger by KIPP New Jersey’s Ryan Hill and Uncommon Schools’ Brett Peiser. They wrote that “Because public charter schools do not have access to public buildings, we must seek other options. We work with other nonprofit organizations to buy and renovate empty schools, rent space from our host public school districts, or build new buildings when we have no other options…. We consider our ability to develop high-quality facilities for our children in the face of these obstacles to be an unmitigated success story. In spite of a glaring gap in the funding laws, we’ve taken our dedication to kids and spirited ingenuity to find ways to use existing government programs to construct world-class school buildings, invest millions in urban areas, and create jobs.”
That gap in the New Jersey law may be worth legislative corrective action, as the NorthJersey.com article suggests once it gets past the hype about disappearing dollars. If the topic gets additional journalistic exploration along the way — well, perhaps the kindest way to put it is that there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.