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Signs of media shift on charter schools

Reporters take more critical view; impact on voters is uncertain

Jule Pattison-Gordon

When political comedian John Oliver recently blasted the philosophy of treating education as a competitive business and lacerated poorly-run charter schools, his broadside quickly became the most highly-visible attack on charter expansion this year.

But it was far from an outlier. In blogs, national newspapers and other news outlets, journalists and commentators increasingly have been questioning the effectiveness of privately-run schools that are grabbing a widening share of public education funding in cities from New Orleans to Lawrence, Massachusetts. On the heels of calls for a moratorium on charter school expansion from the National NAACP and the Movement for Black Lives, along with 50 other civil rights organizations, such media criticism of the charter schools could signal a shift in public opinion.

But whether the critical media attention will translate into votes remains an open question. According to the latest Boston Herald poll on Ballot Question 2, which would enable charter school operators to open as many as 12 new schools a year in Massachusetts, 59 percent of Democratic voters are likely to vote in favor of the measure.

Locally, a story on wealthy anonymous donors bankrolling the most prominent Yes on Question 2 ballot committee recently made its way through Boston newspapers.

On August 10, Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts associate professor of political science, wrote about the opacity shrouding Great Schools Massachusetts’ funders on WGBH’s MassPolitics-

Prof blog. On August 17, the Bay State Banner published a story about the money trail, as did The Boston Globe on August 20 and the Boston Herald, via an op-ed by a Taunton School Committee member, on August 23.

Three days later, on August 23, the Globe printed another story on charter schools, this one highlighting a Texas study suggesting charter school education did not increase earnings or job prospects. On August 29, CommonWealth Magazine published a piece by John Walsh, former chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, in which he argues against passing Question 2 on the grounds that it would financially damage school districts and local communities do not have a say on whether charter schools get built.

In the view of Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University, thus far local reporting largely has taken a pro-charter school perspective.

“I think local media in general has been very pro-charter school and very anti-teachers union for quite a long time,” Kennedy said. He also disclosed that his wife is a unionized public school teacher.

“The Globe or CommonWealth Magazine or the Herald, they all have a certain value set, which is to say, that they have a position they believe in,” Matt O’Neill, a political consultant not engaged by either ballot campaign, told the Banner.

Recent stories could signify that news writers’ perspectives on the issue are shifting.

“Even The Boston Globe, which has consistently covered charters favorably, reports that the money behind Question 2 is hidden from public view,” Diane Ravitch, New York University education research professor, stated on her education blog.

The flurry of local media scrutiny on the impact and financial ties of charter expansion proponents comes in the midst of what is likely to be the most expensive ballot campaign in state history.

However, not everyone agrees on what impact that may have at the ballot box, come November.

Newspapers’ impact

Question 2 is the type of complicated issue for which voters are likely to turn to newspapers for untangling and guidance, Northeastern University’s Kennedy said.

“No one needs The Boston Globe to tell them who to vote for for president, but when it comes to charter schools, people are going to look to the Globe and other media,” Kennedy said. He believes media coverage continues to favor charter school expansion.

“[People] may very well base their vote on what they learn in the media,” Kennedy told the Banner.

With a plethora of contradictory research studies and campaign messaging about the impact and value of charter schools, the duty of sorting through for facts falls, in part, to news media, said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communications at Boston University.

Still, he said, the influence of newspaper articles is far less than wielded by campaign advertising.

“News coverage will very rarely outweigh advertising — especially television advertising,” Carroll said.

Articles vs. ads

TV ads may be able to reach voters better than news articles. Nearly all voters concerned on Question 2 are reachable via TV ads, but not necessarily by news media, BU’s Carroll said.

Campaign advertising has a further advantage: It can drown out news coverage through the sheer frequency with which it pushes a narrative, political consultant Matt O’Neill said.

“The media has its influence and certainly does impact some of the voters, but not to the magnitude that millions of [advertising] dollars can on a consistent and repetitive basis,” O’Neill said.

His expectation: Victory likely will go to the side with the bigger budget — and thus the greater ability to influence public perspective. Great Schools Massachusetts has promised $18 million to advance the Yes on 2 campaign, while teachers unions have promised $12 million to advance No on 2.

Combating advertising dollars would require news organizations to launch a massive editorial effort, Carroll said. O’Neill agreed.

“The only way the media will impact the [ballot] outcome beyond the resources that are going to be put out there by the pros and cons [on Question 2 campaigns] is if they make it a front-page story virtually every day. And that’s not the media’s job,” he told the Banner. The occasional story is not enough to sway votes significantly.

As of August 25, 79 out of the 315 school committees in the state passed resolutions against raising the charter cap. In early August, the Boston City Council voted to oppose passage of Question 2, and last Wednesday City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George called for a hearing to explore the financial impacts of raising the charter cap.