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Education Opinion

When Reporters Preach the Party Line

By Rick Hess — October 28, 2012 4 min read
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For more than a decade, I’ve regarded my pal Richard Colvin as one of the nation’s best education reporters. But even the best of us whiff sometimes. And Richard’s most recent monthly column for the Phi Delta Kappan (“Movement even during inaction”) is a whiff that also sharply illuminates the bias that colors so much education coverage today.

In a piece that doubles as an enthusiastic brief for President Obama’s education efforts, Colvin serves up a raft of self-serving lines from Obama appointees and “independent” progressives. He quotes Amy Wilkins of Education Trust (the proudly liberal Children’s Defense Fund spin-off) saying the Ed Trust used to “scream at Democrats and Republicans” but now “the Republicans have gone so crazy, there’s no working with them.” He reports that Carmel Martin, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Education, “Encourages her team ‘to make sure we’re getting both sides of every issue and question.’” He quotes her saying, “We’ve tried to be balanced philosophically and politically in who we talk to.” Colvin quotes no Republicans, Republican staff, or individuals associated with conservative organizations.

Now, let’s be clear. I like Wilkins, Martin, and the others that Colvin quotes. Moreover, they’re certainly free to offer up whatever narrative they like. Indeed, I expect them, just like anyone else, to tell politically useful tales. But I’d like to think that reporters would be duly skeptical, and disinclined to simply offer up self-interested accounts as gospel truth.

Instead, Colvin cheerfully lauds the administration for “acting in the vacuum left by Congressional inaction” by issuing states waivers from many NCLB provisions. He seems unconcerned with the legal niceties involved, or with the troubling precedent that the administration has set. He quotes Joel Packer, former NEA official and a lobbyist for school spending, saying, “The administration has been really, really good at having a coherent set of policy positions.” Colvin suggests that Duncan did his best in a tough situation, pursuing a “far-reaching education reform” agenda despite “the breakdown of the legislative process.” He reports that assistant secretary for communications Peter Cunningham “said the department did all it could to get Congress to act to revise the law.”

Colvin never mentions that Democrats controlled the House and held a 59 seat Senate majority for the first two years of Obama’s term, and yet never moved NCLB reauthorization out of committee. Heck, it took 14 months for the administration to even introduce its “ESEA blueprint.” Now, it’s fine to say that the administration cared more about the stimulus and health care than about reauthorizing NCLB, but I’m not sure that constitutes a legislative “breakdown.” And when it comes to Martin’s self-professed eagerness to give all ideas a careful hearing, I know a number of key Hill Republicans who tell a different tale.

Though Colvin quotes the Ed Trust’s Amy Wilkins blaming “crazy” Republicans for bringing things to a standstill, readers may recall that it was the Ed Trust and its civil rights allies that fought to derail the Senate’s Harkin-Enzi proposal last summer. They argued, “The loss of goals and progress targets would dismantle the positive aspects of NCLB’s accountability system and be a significant step backward.” While many (including yours truly) regarded Harkin-Enzi as seriously flawed but still an improvement on Bush-era overreach, the administration refused to lift a finger to help move Harkin-Enzi. Indeed, as the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli opined in response to Colvin’s column, “What gets lost, Richard, is a more interesting story about how the civil rights group[s], led by Education Trust, have been able to keep reauthorization from happening, because the reauthorization that is likely now would result in rolling back NCLB quite dramatically. Both the Senate and House passed reauthorization bills out of their respective committees, and had the Administration wanted to get them across the finish line, it could have pushed... The narrative that the Administration ‘had no choice’ but to use waivers just isn’t true.”

While I like Amy Wilkins and respect the terrific work that Ed Trust has done, it’s worth noting here that Wilkins and her organization are proud progressives. Like we all do, they have ideological biases. Quoting Wilkins to show that Republicans are off the rails is a lot like quoting Newt Gingrich or Tim Pawlenty (who have done their share of bipartisan edu-stuff) to demonstrate that Dems are off the rails. Rather than saying that Republicans have “gone crazy,” I think it’d be more accurate to say they’re embracing ideas that liberals don’t like. But should that really be a shocker?

To my mind, Colvin’s slanted account is interesting not because it’s unique but because it’s all too typical. Colvin mirrored the tendency of edu-reporters to echo administration talking points or quote self-proclaimed “independent” (left-leaning) voices cheering the administration or attacking Republicans. I’m not much surprised when a self-impressed talking head like Thomas Friedman does this, but it’s disheartening when an edu-reporter of Colvin’s talents and stature does so.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.