Some Questions For John Merrow, PBS, & Eva Moskowitz*

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Screengrab from Success Academy letter purporting to show reassurances from PBS NewsHour’s John Merrow that the segment would limit criticism of the school from one particular student “celebrates [Success Academy’s] focus on science and the arts, its remarkable academic success and its widespread popularity.”

*Correction: EdWeek was not involved in the production of this segment.

Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz wrote an angry letter to the PBS NewsHour about John Merrow’s segment on primary school suspensions last week (Is Kindergarten Too Young to Suspend a Student?) and — apparently frustrated with whatever response she’d gotten from the outlet — released it to the media earlier today.

According to the Success Academy press release, the letter “details Merrow’s willful disregard for journalistic ethics and refusal to allow Success Academy to respond to false allegations of a former parent and student… Merrow further misrepresents Success Academy as having high attrition rates when in fact the popular charter school network does a far better job of retaining students than the city’s district schools.”

According to the letter, the charter provider gave Merrow’s team access and answered his questions but became concerned towards the end when “it came to our attention that [Merrow] intended to cover the allegations of a parent whom we knew to be unreliable, but he refused to give us any opportunity to address those allegations.”     

In emails posted by Moskowitz, Merrow responds that the parent wouldn’t be allowed “to openly criticize the school” on camera since she wouldn’t release her son’s records to the public.

According to Moskowitz, these were false reassurances, given that “Ms. Doe and her son were in fact a major part of Mr. Merrow’s story and did make criticisms of Success.”

She goes on to enumerate several of the student’s infractions, using the name John Doe, including detailed incident reports showing the extent of the student’s behavior that would seem to justify the suspensions.

On Twitter, EdWeek’s Evie Blad pointed out that the letter might violate students’ privacy:

“I thought the family didn’t waive FERPA. This letter includes plenty of details about discipline.”

It’s an interesting point. By appearing on camera and talking about the experience, the family would seem to be yielding some of its privacy rights — and the letter doesn’t name the student. The student and his mother are identified by name in the PBS piece.

One last thought for now: publishing private email correspondence, as done here, is still somewhat unusual outside of the context of news outlets publishing public officials’ correspondence through FOIA, and is never wanted by at least one of the parties involved.  However, it should be noted that Merrow did somewhat the same with emails he and I exchanged as part of his response to a CJR story I wrote that was critical of his (and others’) reporting on Common Core opt-outs.

I’ve asked PBS, Merrow, and EdWeek for their response. (EdWeek says it was not involved.) According to Success, they have not yet received a response. Some questions include:

*How if at all did Merrow limit the charges the parent and child addressed against the school because of the child’s FERPA status?

*Why did Merrow decline to give Moskowitz a chance to respond to allegations made against the network (a fairly basic journalistic requirement), assuming her account of the scenario is as it actually happened?

*Was it OK for PBS to reveal the student’s name given his privacy status and does that make it OK for Success Academy to provide details of his school record beyond those revealed on camera?

*Why did Success agree to the story given its repeated claims of being mistreated in the media — and what if anything good comes from publishing the letter after (again) receiving coverage that it doesn’t like?

Related posts:Who Will Replace Merrow On EdWeek-Run PBS NewsHour?; All Hail Merrow (One More Time)Common problems with Common Core reporting;  PBS Reporter Reflects On 40 Years Of CoverageLast Night’s PBS NewsHour May Have (Wildly) Overstated the Dropout Rate for New Teachers.

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.