Little-Known Nonprofit Covers Big-State Education News

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No, this isn’t how EdSource Today’s John Fensterwald covers California education news.

It’s pretty easy to miss EdSource Today, the California-based education news outlet. They don’t have a big social media presence. Their pieces aren’t usually accompanied by interactive graphics or other fun visuals. There aren’t any publishing partnerships with big commercial outlets. 

And — let’s be honest — nobody outside of California is paying all that much attention to California schools, anyway. They’re so far away. The time change is so confusing. There’s no big Common Core or testing fight going on there, and funding for schools is actually going up so they don’t fit an easy sky-is-falling narrative.  LAUSD might be the second-largest school district in the nation and boast a giant number of kids in charter schools but it just picked a new (homegrown) superintendent so who cares?

But downplaying California — and missing EdSource — is probably a mistake.

The state is massive, complicated demographically and educationally, and even its politics are fascinating. Where else does a progressive Democratic governor ban concealed weapons on campus and reject a ban on for-profit charter schools at the same time? What other big-city district hires a veteran African-American woman from within to run the system?

Though the LA Times may now be just as big, until this fall EdSource Today claimed to be the largest California-focused education news team in the state. EdSource Today is now budgeted for six reporters, up from just two fulltime (Fensterwald and Kathy Barron) at the start.

At the heart of it all is a guy named John Fensterwald. Nearly seven years ago, the longtime San Jose Mercury journalist started writing about education. The editorial writer had been interested in education for a long time but hadn’t covered it in depth or exclusively until then.

At first, Fensterwald wrote something called Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-Ed) and a column Educated Guess. He joined EdSource Today in 2012 and is now listed as editor at large.

For a time, he told me in a recent phone call, he seemed almost to have the state/Sacramento education beat to himself: “I frequently found myself only person at state board meetings,” he remembers. Even the Sacramento Bee wasn’t paying much attention, according to Fensterwald. Neither was the LA Times.

Since then, some things have changed. The Hechinger Report has published some California-based stories on a more episodic basis, according to Fensterwald. Another niche outlet, the SI&A Cabinet Report, also covers Sacramento doings. And the arrival of Joy Resmovits at the LA Times is now bringing more attention to state issues. (“She’s doing a good job and paying more attention to larger issues,” says Fensterwald.) 

That’s not the only thing that’s changed about education media coverage in California, however —  and not all of the changes have been good. “It’s gotten so politicized, and so it gets simplified even though it’s a complicated beat.” Classroom reporting is the hardest to make time to do – and to do well, Fensterwald says. because of time limits and budget cuts at many traditional daily papers, education coverage “tends to follow the shining lure in the water.”

“We go to what people tells us works best, without taking enough time to spend there to see if it’s true.” 

Ironically, the budget cuts have often been accompanied by calls for more localized coverage.  “At the same time you‘re cutting, they’re saying ‘go local.’ That’s even more difficult.” 

Making things even harder is that the state has moved towards a more decentralized system of education over the past three years. “None of us has a great handle what’s going on out in 1,000 districts,” according to Fensterwald. “There’s a lot we don’t know, and lower levels of oversight from the state [than in the past].”

EdSource isn’t the only source of quality education journalism in the staste.  Among California reporters, Fensterwald mentions Sharon Noguchi at the SJ Mercury (his old paper), Claudia Melendez in Salinas, Howard Blume in LA, and Nan Austin in Fresno.

You can read EdSource’s top five stories of 2015 and check out Fensterwald’s Major education issues to watch in 2016 – and predictions of what to expect. Follow @edsource or @jfenster. 

Previous posts: EdSource Today’s California-Sized Growth Spurt (2014).

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.