Fawn Johnson’s Inside View of Education Politics

Johnson (above, middle) moderating a 2012 EWA Panel (What’s In Store for Common Core?)

First thing’s first: Fawn Johnson has left National Journal to become Chief Policy Editor for @MorningConsult but she’s still going to be writing about education sometimes from her new perch. And, given how much high-quality content she’s been able to put out while covering a bunch of other issues at National Journal, it would be foolish to count her out just yet. Sister publication The Atlantic.com picked up her stuff pretty frequently. My mentions of Johnson on Twitter (@fawnjohnson) have been pretty incessant. 

Johnson took over education from Eliza Krigman in 2010. But it was never her main beat. “Basically, I was a general assignment reporter,” she told me in a recent phone chat. Others at the magazine had “money” beats — defense, etc. “I got what was left.”

As it turns out, education is not a money beat. Big surprise.”You kind of go where the action is.” And selling education stories is no easy task, she says — a familiar refrain in mainstream and trade worlds, especially when there’s no dedicated team focusing on the issue. The winning pitches usually fall into two camps, according to Johnson: “The local school board story, in which the parents are mad about something, and the big sweeping ‘What’s the problem with children in America?’ kind of thing.”  More mundane kinds of stories didn’t sell, according to Johnson — even if they’re important. “They just don’t sound interesting.” Non-education stories are easier to write by comparison.

Like others, she found ways to make it work, focusing in on a startling example of something going on in one place that resonates nationally. That was the model for the 2014 Common Core story she wrote about in Alabama. “It was just a really amazing view into that perspective,” recalls Johnson. 

Along the way, she also ran an education blog. There especially, she seemed able and willing to cut loose a bit. (“Everything about this story is upsetting,” she wrote in a recent blog post about the Atlanta cheating convictions.) In person and on panels and such, she’s even more refreshingly candid. Her collaborators on the blog, however, weren’t always so willing or able to speak their minds. “What I found running the blog is that DC people are cautious.” A blog post on whether Obama was a ‘snob’ drew few responses. “They wanted to keep their day job.”

In terms of other education writers, Johnson is a big admirer of Lyndsey Layton’s Common Core reporting.  She’s also a fan of Emma Brown and Nick Anderson, also at the Post. She remembers watching Politico’s Maggie Severns on CSPAN earlier this summer: “She had every single angle perfectly,” And, like many others, she also enjoys listening to Alyson Klein on USDE press calls. “Oh my god, I love how she asks these questions.”

Sometimes education coverage can be superficial, but that’s usually a matter of lack of time and support in the newsroom. “It’s not that these people don’t know how to report.”  There are some times when the press misses something important like earlier this Spring when everyone missed the House’s failed attempt to pass an education reauthorization. ” I was distracted and I didn’t see it coming, but someone should have.” But it doesn’t seem to happen that much. The danger of being a veteran reporter is that of getting too comfortable, she says. “You have to be careful about how you describe the positions of various opposing groups,” she warns. “I get in trouble if I’m too flip.”

In terms of her own writing, the work she’s proudest of is the 2012 EWA award-winning piece in which she went back to the authors of NCLB and asked them to reflect on what did and didn’t work. “You can really see how difficult it is to legislate this stuff,” she says. “They really tried and they got only some of it.” Her best stuff, for me, has always been her ability to understand and relate how DC — particularly Congress — works (how advocates, lobbyists, and staff interact and push up against each other, how opponents mirror each other’s advocacy tactics, and how moderates make their way in a polizarized environment). Plus she’s got a great deadpan delivery. 

Thankfully, education never goes away entirely, and even in DC the issue has has its heyday every once in a while. This year was one of them, according to Johnson. “All of a sudden people cared.” Her last few months included a slew of education stories, most of them about Common Core or the NCLB rewrite effort. (Some examples: Senate Democrats Scramble to Avoid a Split on Education BillPoverty Issues Lurk in Senate Education DebateEducation Fights to Take Center StageThe Testing Debate Just Got Weirder).

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.