New York Times Magazine Education Issue Leads Back-to-School Coverage Flurry

By Mark Walsh — September 08, 2017 3 min read
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September is prime back to school season for most U.S. students. So it is for obvious reasons that this is when many news outlets flex their muscles on enterprise stories on education.

Harper’s magazine’s September issue has several education pieces, including a look at school choice in Arizona by Alexandria Neason.

Meanwhile, a new piece in The Atlantic by Erika Christakis, coming in the October issue, is titled “America Has Given Up on Public Schools. That’s Wrong,” which also examines school choice.

But no publication can flex its education reporting muscles this time of year more than The New York Times.

Two weeks ago, the Times Book Review published its annual education issue, which included reviews of several higher education-themed books as well as a Back to School children’s books section.

Last Sunday, the paper carried a front-page story under the banner of “Education Disrupted,” a lengthy piece about teachers promoting themselves as their own brands and some of the ethical concerns raised by the teachers’ promotion of certain technologies in their classrooms. My colleague Ben Herold has an interesting discussion of that piece in his Digital Education blog.

And this Sunday, Sept. 10, The New York Times Magazine publishes its own annual education issue. It includes a piece by Alina Tugend (an Education Week alum from long ago) about the expansion of Advanced Placement classes in low-income majority black and Latino high schools. There is also a piece by Mark Binelli about Michigan’s experience with charter schools.

The cover story is “The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” a well-woven telling by NYT Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones of the desegregation-related fight over the secession effort by one small, newly formed Alabama school district from a larger county school system.

That fight, involving the Gardendale city school district and the Jefferson County system near Birmingham, has attracted a lot of coverage this year, and Hannah-Jones’s story is not the first major magazine piece about it. Newsweek did a cover story, “Class Warfare: The Battle to Keep Schools Segregated Gets Ugly,” in May that was largely focused on the Gardendale situation.

And just this week, The Nation magazine carried a piece by Emmanuel Felton of the Hechinger Report about Gardendale and larger trends involving school district secessions and resegregation. The story is headlined, “The Department of Justice Is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools.” (Felton’s story is strong in its own right, and it includes a conversation with David Salters, one of the leaders of Gardendale’s secession effort. In her New York Times magazine piece, which is sympathetic to the opponents of the Gardendale secession, Hannah-Jones says Salters and other secession activists declined to be interviewed.)

The Gardendale case is legally complex, with a federal district judge this year finding that race was a motivating factor in the town’s efforts to secede from the larger school system, but nevertheless allowing Gardendale to begin to take control of two of the four county system schools within its town limits.

Hannah-Jones writes that the judge, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala, “made it clear she was attempting a Solomonic solution. If she ruled against Gardendale, Haikala worried that Gardendale residents would place the blame on the black students bused in because of the desegregation order, and those students could face marginalization and mistreatment. She also said that not every Gardendale resident who supported the secession did so for racist reasons and that a flat-out denial would be unfair to them.”

Both sides of the case have appealed the judge’s ruling. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, representing black students, argues that it was wrong to grant the secession at all. The Gardendale school district, meanwhile, is seeking to take control of all four Jefferson County schools within its limits instead of the phase-in approach that would start with only two elementary schools.

There was a lot that went on in this case before it drew national attention, and the case is potentially headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hannah-Jones’s piece explains its origins and where it may be going.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.