Reporting Vs. Speculation About Baltimore Schools & Mayoral Candidate Deray Mckesson

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 3.16.29 PM
Screengrab from Slate’s Deray Mckesson story from last month.

A couple of weeks ago at Slate, American Prospect fellow Rachel Cohen took a look at the already much-covered candidacy of Deray Mckesson for Baltimore mayor and suggested among other things that the Black Lives Matter co-founder and TFA alum was going to be forced to run on an controversial education platform:

“Despite Black Lives Matter’s national work, that aspect of his candidacy is unlikely to be too disruptive in the race. It’ll be where his campaign intersects with the school-reform movement, and specifically how local education politics rub up against his national ties, that could really shake things up.”

Sure, Mckesson has been getting a ton of media attention — some of it quite soft. Yes, he appeared at a few of the TFA 25th Anniversary summit events (which I thought he might avoid in order to avoid inflaming reform opponents’ fears).

And to be sure, education advocates who are concerned about and/or opposed to school reform (charters, choice, test-based accountability) have been wondering who this guy is and what kind of education agenda he might be going to promote?

But the notion that, after building the Black Lives Matter movement and focusing it on police reform, McKesson would run a campaign focused on education  seemed unlikely and didn’t seem to me to have been backed up by any real reporting.

I wasn’t seeing that Mckesson had “already signaled that he plans to campaign on education” as Cohen claimed in her piece. And, while she claimed that Mckesson “won’t be able to shy away from that charged debate” over charters, it wasn’t clear to me that this was necessarily going to be an issue.

And, while she’s written about Maryland charters in the past (for City Paper), Cohen was telling us in Slate (a) that education (not police reform) was going to be Mckesson’s calling card and (b) that his education positions were going to be problematic — without giving us much real evidence of those things (from expert observers, event coverage, or even social media).

She did link out to one Socialist Worker article, and to some Baltimore leaders and activists who were disgruntled about Mckesson’s national profile among other things, but that was about it for evidence to go along with her specific thesis. It seemed to me like she was speculating or even spinning, focusing on possible issues and linking him more closely to one part of the school reform movement than might be accurate.

I have a long-standing concern about the tendency in education journalism for reporters to rely on speculation (their own or advocates’) about future events rather than focusing on what’s known, happening, reportable. In fact, I’m breaking my own New Year’s Resolution here, which was  to ignore journalism that focuses on speculation reactions instead of providing new info.

Over-reliance on speculation has a long, sad history in education media, whether it’s the notion that states were going to turn down federal education funding over NCLB, that the latest gizmo or model (one laptop, tablets, blended learning, student surveys) was going to transform education,  or that parents’ concerns about overtesting were going to doom the Common Core.

Sometimes, the speculation is in the category of wishful thinking/hype. Often, it’s in the category of “looming catastrophe.” All too rarely is the one form of speculation balanced out with the other. And for me, what separates journalism from other forms of writing is a focus on real-life evidence and a balanced, skeptical take on what advocates, pundits, and bloggers have to say.

On Twitter, Cohen defended her work as “reported analysis.” The UFT’s Miles Trager praised Cohen’s take, claiming that McKesson’s candidacy “reeks of TFA attitude of entitlement which is only attractive to few.” For his part, McKesson called the article “clickbait.”

But as of yesterday, we have a bit more information about how McKesson is actually going to play the whole education thing, and it doesn’t seem like he’s the hardline charter school advocate that some folks were worrying about or that education reform is going to be his big issue.

In a new interview posted online yesterday, McKesson says that he’s fine with unionized charters — and thinks they might be a national model for charter schools:

“I think the way that it’s operationalized here in Maryland makes sense to me, that members are–teachers are members of the union, that there’s a close relationship between the school and the district. I think that makes sense to me, and I think that this could actually be a model for the way the districts work across the country. Here, again, there’s a lack of strategy around education, both at the district level and city-wide. And we can continue to refine the way that we fund public schools, whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools.”

From my perspective, Mckesson’s charter school response seems to refute (or at least deflate) Cohen’s speculation that his education positions were going to be some sort of big issue in his candidacy. From Cohen’s, it’s confirmation that she was right to anticipate in her Slate article that the issue was going to come up. According to Drew Franklin, who claims to have been the first to write about McKesson’s education reform background, it’s still a big issue: “DeRay’s position on charters is entirely consistent with TFA’s corporate ed reform model. Nothing has changed.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of interesting education-related stories that could — and should — get reported about the Baltimore mayoral race:

Yes, school reform critics locally and nationally are concerned about the rise of Mckesson, also something that could be reported on (both the concerns and the sources of the concerns). Take a look at the FAQ that the campaign has had to post to get a sense of the misinformation/ misperceptions that are being spread about him. What are the swirling dynamics behind the Baltimore race — where are the teachers, other labor groups, the Democratic establishment? 

Yes, reform advocates could split over Mckesson if they prefer non-union charters. Something along those lines happened in 2010 with the Fenty/Grey race in DC. That would be another fascinating area to report.

And what about Baltimore’s unionized charters, anyway — are they better, worse, or about the same for kids and teachers in them? Cohen’s written a national trends piece about charter unionization, which I admired, but has yet to focus in on Baltimore charters (to my knowledge).

Meanwhile, there are several other immediately pressing and newsworthy-seeming things going on in Baltimore around schools, including the recent video of school police hitting a kid (which Mckesson thinks should lead to a firing).

Related posts: How To Be A Smart Supreme Court Coverage ReaderDuncan/King: So Much Coverage – But Key Details Still MissingCommon problems with Common Core reporting.

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.