Politics K-12 & Vox Win Praise for Senate ESEA Coverage – But Where Were The Big Outlets?

Asking around about the coverage of the ESEA renewal debate in the Senate last week, nothing major has come up — no giant mistakes or obvious gaffes. As noted below, Vox and Politics K-12 were singled out for their work.  

This is a good thing.  However, there were some issues that got raised about the coverage by those who were watching the process closely — and some questions about whether the process got as much coverage as it warranted from bigger outlets and publications (AP, NPR, NYT, etc.).

Covering the ESEA renewal effort is no easy task, given how much time has passed since it was last updated (2002) and the layers of additional rules and programs that have been added since then (including the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative and the administrative waivers that the USDE has been giving out to states in recent years to mitigate the requirements of the underlying statute).

What’s actually a part of the 2002 law known as No Child Left Behind, and what’s part of a state waiver or a Race to the Top grant requirement? It takes a photographic memory or a handy chart to keep track.

For example, as one insider noted, requirements related to teacher effectiveness (measuring their impact on student test scores, for example) weren’t in the original 2002 law, which was focused almost entirely on teacher certification. They were part of Race to the Top and state waivers under the Obama administration.

Distinctions between NCLB, Race to the Top, and NCLB waivers were part of my look into a recent New York Times piece about NCLB.

In addition, groups of advocates oppose and support each other issue by issue, amendment by amendment. It’s fascinating to note when, say, teachers unions and conservatives ally together as they did last week on some issues, but it’s not obvious or predictable from the outside — or simple to describe to readers if your assignment is to describe the debate process rather than note the phenomenon. 

Given these complexities, it’s no surprise that coverage of education doesn’t always go well. In March, almost every media outlet covering the ESEA renewal process was caught flat-footed when the House debate started and then stopped abruptly, derailed over a controversy over funding for Homeland Security, among other things. (I wrote about some possible lessons from that debacle here.)

This time around, things seem to have gone better, on the whole, though there were some interesting complaints:

Those who favored the Senate version of the rewrite (including teachers unions and Republicans who were opposed to some of the accountability measures being proposed) understandably didn’t like reading that civil rights groups uniformly opposed the Senate bill and were 100 percent at odds with the teachers unions.

Without naming any outlets, one advocate called that line of reporting “inaccurate and frankly lazy” — noting that the NEA and Leadership Conference for Civil Rights worked together on resource equity issues during the debate (see link) and praised a Vox explainer for “getting it right.” 

Education Week’s political blog Politics K-12 “continues to prove its indispensability,” observed the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli.  But not everyone did so well. “Some of the media continue to struggle to understand Republicans,” wrote Petrilli — without naming specific outlets. “They are not against testing and accountability. They are against an overzealous federal role.”

The results included a stray headline or two (including the one attached to the Vox explainer that was praised by others) and a lot of time spent walking reporters through the process in order to make sure that Republican viewpoints were accurately reflected. In the end, most of the coverage “came out OK,” according to Petrilli — but not without a lot of work.

Another insider noted that there wasn’t very much attention paid to what the Presidential candidates — and other prominent figures like Senator Warren — were doing on ESEA renewal.

But another insider who didn’t wish to be named made a larger observation, noting that while trade publications like EdWeek and Politico’s education page were all over the process it seemed like mainstream publications and broadcast outlets generally published just one or two pieces at the 30,000-foot level and left it at that.

This is an interesting observation to consider. The bipartisan nature of the process, which culminated in an 87-member vote for passage, plus the swirling and unusual alliances (teachers unions and conservative Republicans), failed to generate as much coverage as might have been expected (or was allotted to immigration reform efforts, for example).

Why didn’t the Senate passage of the bill garner more attention? Some possible explanations for the lack of attention might be the interminable and uncertain renewal process, the ramping up of the political campaigns, big foreign affairs news (the Iran deal, Greece, etc.), and the disconnect between ESEA renewal and the “other” big education issue of the year, Common Core testing.  

Last but not least, it’s also possible that the complex interplay between the liberal and conservative factions over testing and accountability was hard to follow and describe to readers used to simple Democrat vs. Republican dynamics. 

In case you’re wondering, I reached out to both Senator Alexander and Senator Murray’s staffs but haven’t yet received any response. They feel like they have better things to do — recovering from last week and getting prepared for the House-Senate conference battle — or they may be concerned about complaining about or criticizing members of the media who write about their bosses.

Related posts:  5 Lessons From Friday’s Embarrassing “Surprise” ESEA Reauthorization MeltdownA “Punitive” Look At The NYT’s Latest Education Coverage

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.