By and large, Dale Russakoff’s new book about Newark schools has been applauded as well-reported, carefully balanced, and eye-opening. Unlike many other books these days, there were fact-checkers involved in the process and Russakoff ran portions of the book by sources to ensure accuracy. If there are any concerns about Russakoff’s accuracy in reporting the complicated story, send them along.
But there’s been one nagging complaint that’s been aired several times over the past few weeks (Moran, Williams, Cunningham among others), which is that Russakoff’s reporting focuses so narrowly on the efforts of those trying to change the system that it fails to inform readers equally well about those who were opposed to the reform efforts — and especially those who helped fund or coordinate the efforts.
This is, quite naturally, one of the main issues that those who were involved with the reform efforts have raised — the school reform version of a driver stopped for speeding telling the cop to ticket the other guys, too. (Reformers haven’t questioned any of the reporting about their mistakes.)
But the issue of balance and how to attribute the opposition to the effort is also worth looking at from a journalistic perspective.
I’ve asked people whose work was described in the book if they want to tell me what Russakoff gets wrong or leaves out. The book implies that a community engagement process organized by Bradley Tusk was a boondoggle, and that Chris Cerf’s former consulting firm benefitted inappropriately from his relationship with him in his role as informal advisor to Governor Christie.
By and large, I’ve gotten little response — despite offers to go off the record or quote them without identifying them by name. As a result, most of what follows are my own observations or ideas from published accounts — and from Russakoff herself, who has been kind (and confident) enough to talk and email with me about these issues.
The basic issue is that, for all its detail and completeness, the book doesn’t go into much detail about the campaign against Anderson’s efforts and charter growth undertaken by teachers unions and other allies. Readers aren’t privy to private meetings organized to block Anderson’s efforts, or given carefully reported portraits of those who led the efforts.
Russakoff talks about the controversial AFT ads that ran against Anderson in this RealClear Education interview, but I don’t recall these details in the book. An extremely controversial meeting at which a heckler talked about Anderson’s child was cut from the book (but ran in the New Yorker story). Parents and teachers who appear at meetings and oppose Anderson’s efforts are presumed to have shown up on their own.
The narrow focus on reform efforts was also an issue in Russakoff’s New Yorker article, which detailed reform spending but seemed to pay less attention to union funding of opposition efforts. It’s also been an issue in other media coverage of the Newark conflict by the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. The opposition is presumed to be organic, authentic, spontaneous, which is only sometimes the case.
For her part, Russakoff says the book includes several sections detailing the opposition such as Chapter 11 (where Anderson gets shouted down presenting her reorganization plan), the description of local union head Joe Del Grosso’s 2013 change of heart after almost losing his re-election and in describing the Baraka campaign. More than that wouldn’t have been appropriate, according to Rusakoff, because reform critics that emerged weren’t fundamentally responsible for the community opposition that grew over time.
That is, the opposition was organic and authentic, predominantly fueled by mis-steps by arrogant reformers rather than paid agitators.
Some of the more obvious opposition efforts (such as the Working Families strategist working with the Newark Students Union) didn’t take form (or get on Russakoff’s radar) until after she finished her manuscript in December 2014. The student occupation of Anderson’s office and the role of the union organizer will be added in the paperback version, says Russakoff, though she doesn’t think union support was a major or instrumental part of Anderson’s downfall or Baraka’s victory.
My sense is that there was more going on behind the scenes than that, but that Russakoff had chosen to focus on the reform effort and for reasons of time focus wasn’t able to tell the whole whole story.
Looking ahead, this issue of how much to focus on reform opponents and how to attribute reform opposition is an important one, and has come up any number of times in the past few years (including most notably John Merrow’s PBS NewsHour segment on opting out). Generally, reform efforts are tightly linked to the funders and political leaders who are behind them. Opposition to reform efforts is only occasionally linked to organizations and interests who might be behind them.
My view has generally been that what’s done for one set of actors should be done for the other, when it comes to sources of funding especially. But obviously not everyone agrees. To some journalists, advocates who see the union behind every protest sound just as disconnected from reality as advocates who see Bill Gates behind every reform effort. Journalists like Merrow and Russakoff report on the opposition that arises from controversial actions, and on the dynamics that led to the controversy. Union involvement is seen as incidental.