Like most people, we journalists can become a little testy if strangers peak over our shoulders while we are working. That goes double for us education reporters, who labor in obscurity and (at least in my case) like it. Having seen how annoying life can be for my few colleagues who have become celebrities, I prefer to keep my working process out of the spotlight.
Unfortunately, there is a new study by the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute in Herndon, Va., interrupting my treasured solitude and making harsh judgments about how education reporters like me are doing our jobs. (You can find the study by going to one of the institute's Web sites | www.choices-k12.org and looking for the link to Society's Watchdogs.) It says we are leaving readers ignorant of interesting innovations in schooling because we spend too much time and space on the minutia of school board, county council and education department action.
I would just toss the report into the little black wastebasket under my desk, as I do scores of useless studies people send to me, except that I know the two women responsible for this one and reluctantly concluded years ago that they usually know what they are talking about, even when they are politely explaining to me my latest mess-ups.
They are Michelle Easton, founder and president of the institute, and Lil Tuttle, the institute's education director. I met them eight years ago, when both were serving as appointees to the Virginia State Board of Education under then-governor George Allen Jr. Easton was the president of the board.
They and their institute take the pro-choice side in education debates. They want tax-supported vouchers for children attending private school, more charter schools, tuition tax credits and other innovations that would make it easier for parents to remove their children from what they call the rigidity and bureaucracy of "the public school industry."
After trying and often failing to get reporters to write more articles about expanding parental choice, Easton and Tuttle decided to find out exactly what we WERE writing about. They funded a survey of education reporters at eight Virginia newspapers in June 2004 and analyzed 403 education stories published by four of those papers between October 2003 and May 2004.
They promised confidentiality to the reporters who answered their questions, and so they will not identify the newspapers. But they told me the companies that own them, so I can safely conclude one paper was the Newport News Daily Press, one was either the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot or the Roanoke Times, one was either the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Charlottesville Daily Progress, the Potomac News or the Winchester Star, and the last was one of the many weeklies owned by the Byrd Newspapers Co.
The Washington Post has a larger circulation in Virginia than any newspaper based in Virginia, but it was not part of the study, and neither I nor any other Post reporter was interviewed. That's not really important, because we often cover schools the same way these four papers do. In fact, the education reporting habits the report describes are common to nearly all newspapers in this country.
The report, entitled "Society's Watchdogs," said 63 percent of the reporters it surveyed said the most common trigger for an education story is "an announcement or press release by a federal, state, or local education agency." All of the reporters said they had used federal, state and local school officials, teachers and parents as sources in the past six months. Only 50 percent said they sought information from public policy think tanks, such as Clare Booth Luce, and only 38 percent used independent research organizations.
And they really gave Easton and Tuttle heartburn by saying that public school officials were their primary source of information on vouchers and tuition tax credits, "despite that industry's open hostility to these innovations," the report said.
The study's audit of 403 newspaper articles was even more interesting. The report said "65 percent of published articles related to topics of foremost interest to the public school industry, namely, public school funding, public school staffing, and public school wage and benefit proposals." They divided the rest of the articles this way: 22 percent on student achievement and state learning standards, 7 percent on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 3 percent on assorted matters such as school boundary issues, and just 3 percent on what Easton and Tuttle would like to see, articles on "public education reforms and innovations such as charter schools, home schooling, vouchers, and tuition tax credits."
They counted the sources in all those stories and found 95 percent -- 1,364 citations -- were from "government/public school-affiliated sources" and only 5 percent, or 74 citations, were not tied to government or public schools. In 261 stories on school funding, the report said, individual taxpayers were quoted only six times and taxpayer advocacy groups were never quoted.
What galled me most about the report's results was the almost total lack of stories from inside classrooms, which is where I think education reporters should try to be as often as possible. That is where readers are most likely to learn what is working, what is not, and what is happening to their children. And that is where The Post, with 14 education reporters and a lot of space, does a better job.
But the institute's report chose to emphasize instead the overreliance on official school sources, the failure to say much about innovations that favor parental choice and the almost complete absence of taxpayers' opinions.
These complaints tend to overlook some of the report's own data, and lose sight of reporters' obligation to cover the world as it is, not as would-be reformers would like it to be. For instance, after suggesting that the reporters did not care about taxpayers, the report noted that they covered school funding issues three times as often as they covered academic innovations, which seems to me a sign of deep interest in keeping taxpayers up to date on what is happening to their money.
It may be true that reporters should be writing more about parental choice innovations, but it would also be irresponsible for us to pursue Easton's and Tuttle's agenda for them. Virginia state officials and school districts have shown little interest in vouchers. Charter schools in the state are few. So there is not much in Virginia for a reporter to write about on those issues. The Virginia reporters don't have the advantage we have at The Post, where we cover the D.C. schools, a national leader in use of both vouchers and charter schools.
Tuttle said she understands Virginia doesn't have the parental choice innovations in place yet, but she cited polls showing nearly half of Virginians support them. And as for reporters' emphasis on school spending, she said she thought we covered it in a way that kept readers from understanding what was really going on.
"To tax payers," she said, "the local budget process seems deliberately designed to put them at a disadvantage:
"The tax spending group generally develops, debates, and reaches agreement among its various constituencies on a proposed budget (including additional staff and staff pay raises), then submits it to the tax collecting group. (They may have no idea what resources are actually available, but that isn't the school board's problem.) By this time, several news articles have been written reflecting the tax spending group's perspective justifying their needs and expectations.
"If there are insufficient resources to fund all city/county service requests, the tax collecting group must either say 'no' to a now-united tax spending group or demand more funds from the tax payer group. More articles are written to chronicle the tax collecting group's deliberations, usually with quotes from the tax spending constituents sprinkled in.
"If the tax collectors choose to raise taxes, tax payers finally learn what the school budget, developed months earlier, means to them. By this time, tax payers also face a united lobby of both tax collectors and tax spenders ready to portray tax payers as the grinches who stole Christmas if they object."
She has something there. More outside voices, reported sooner in the process, would help. And those outsiders don't have to all be from Easton's and Tuttle's side of the ideological aisle. The progressives who want more assessments by portfolio and oral examination, as well as other things, also deserve more coverage.
So I will stifle my resentment that I need an institute in Herndon to tell me this, and try to do better.