Political Conventions Draw More Education Reporters Looking for an Angle

By Mark Walsh — July 26, 2016 7 min read
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Some 15,000 members of the media are covering the national parties’ political conventions this month, by one estimate. Among them are a handful who have been in Cleveland and/or Philadelphia primarily looking for education stories and angles.

“I don’t think most news organizations in general think of themselves as covering specific issues during the conventions,” said Dale Mezzacappa, a contributing editor for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a print publication and website that covers education in the city, which is hosting the Democratic Party convention this year. “But obviously, if you work for an education-specific publication, you’re going to look for that story.”

Established education news organizations such as Education Week have covered the national political conventions for many years and are doing so this year as well, on platforms such as Edweek’s Politics K-12 blog and in its print edition. (Edweek has had two reporters and one photographer/videographer at each convention this year.)

But the recent rise of exclusively web-based education news outlets has brought even more reporters with a focus on K-12 and college issues to this year’s conventions.

The 74 Million, an education news and opinion website launched last year by the former TV anchor Campbell Brown and others, has had three staff members at the Republican Party’s convention in Cleveland last week and the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this week.

“We’ve been working to find angles on both sides,” said Romy Drucker, a co-founder and the CEO of the New York City-based site, which has had a stated goal of trying to increase the prominence of education as an electoral issue.

“Our presence at the conventions is an example of our commitment to make this a front-page issue,” said Drucker.

The site, which is named for the number of U.S. children of school age, but goes by the shorthand The 74, has been perceived by some observers as sympathetic to school choice and other policies associated with conservatives. While many of the Republican presidential hopefuls gave interviews to Brown during the primary season, the Democratic candidates declined.

Drucker said The 74 is “a nonpartisan organization, and it’s great we’ve been able to be part of the conversation at both conventions.”

On Monday, the site published a highly unflattering story about Republican nominee Donald Trump, recalling a 1997 event in which the New York City real estate mogul participated as a “Principal for a Day” at a public school in the South Bronx, leaving a bad taste among educators at the school and even among some young students.

During the conventions, The 74 has joined with Bellwether Education Partners, a Boston-based consulting firm, for a live blog featuring both reporting and commentary on the unfolding events, called EDlection2016.

Andrew J. Rotherham, a Bellwether partner who worked on education policy in President Bill Clinton’s White House, wrote in the joint blog last week that the “lack of education focus is unfortunate because there is an opportunity for real debate. But, for different reasons, neither candidate seems interested in having it.”

In an interview, Rotherham said it’s not a bad idea for education news outlets to send reporters to the conventions. They will find stories in daytime policy forums specifically on the issue and in the occasional mention of education themes in convention speeches.

But still, he said, “The people who care about policy, you can take it to the bank that they will complain there’s not enough policy [discussion]. Unless you turn the convention into a damn seminar, it’s not going to be enough. But that’s not what the conventions are really about.”

Going In-Depth

The Hechinger Report, the respected education journalism organization housed at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City, was founded six years ago and sent reporters to both political conventions in 2012.

This year, Hechinger was turned down for credentials for the Republican convention, but granted them for the Democratic confab by the respective parties’ “special press” process. (Most news organizations are accredited by the Congressional press galleries, and it would be rare for those galleries to give credentials for one party’s convention and not the other’s. But the special press credentials are distributed by the parties themselves.)

“We wanted to give each convention equal time,” said Sarah Garland, Hechinger’s executive editor. So, lacking the credential for the RNC, the organization sent reporters to Cleveland in advance of the convention to do stories such as the one examining what it would take to “make Cleveland schools great again"—a twist on Trump’s catch phrase about making America great again.

“A Hechinger story in general is not a ‘this happened yesterday’ story,” said Garland. “We try to take a more analytical and forward-looking tack.”

Hechinger’s stories get some extra mileage by appearing frequently on the Huffington Post, the online newspaper. This week, Hechinger led with a story about Hillary Clinton looking to unite her party by moving away from the “Education Wars.” On Tuesday, a story by Emmanuel Felton, one of its reporters on the ground in Philadelphia, explores whether President Barack Obama’s education policies have weakened the Democratic Party’s prospects.

Garland said that because Hechinger does have credentials for two reporters at this week’s Democratic convention, those reporters will look to interview delegates and others to add depth to those more-analytical stories.

For reporters at the conventions with a specialized focus such as education, there typically are a number of side events that help justify the expense of attending.

There are panel discussions about education, such as one in Cleveland last week sponsored by the American Federation for Children (a pro-school choice group). That included Brown, of The 74 Million, interviewing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out the presidential primary.

In Philadelphia this week, the Atlantic, which has become much more than a monthly magazine, with lots of online reporting and live events, is sponsoring various panel discussions, including two on Wednesday on education: “Changing the Frame on Education,” and “Teaching for Tomorrow in the Creative Economy.” On Monday, Lisa Stark, the lead correspondent for Education Week Video, moderated a discussion about high school sponsored by the PBS NewsHour and XQ America, a group seeking to rethink the traditional U.S. high school. (She moderated a similar panel in Cleveland last week on early childhood education.)

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview that the coverage of education issues at the political conventions “always feels a little forced.”

Pointing to stories and blog posts about the education records of vice presidential nominees, Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence and Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, he said, “How much did [Vice Presidents] Joe Biden or Dick Cheney play a role in education policy?”

“But I understand it,” he said. “You have a bunch of people there, so they’re going to be running around looking for every possible education nugget.”

“It’s kind of the curse of the social media age,” Hess added. “People spend enormous amounts of time worrying about things that are mostly manufactured angst.”

The Philadelphia Story

Mezzacappa of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook did not seem beset with angst as she contemplated the stories that she and her colleagues might pursue as the political world converged in her city.

For one thing, Mezzacappa is a veteran education reporter who spent many years covering the beat at the city’s largest newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. She covered multiple political conventions for that paper, including the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia. “I don’t remember a thing about education from then,” she said. “I was just part of the team.”

Mezzacappa turned to some of her Inquirer connections for help when the scrappy Notebook was initially turned down for credentials to cover the Democratic convention in its own city. The paper ended up with one credential, which staff members will have to share to get into the Wells Fargo Center one at a time.

Mezzacappa wrote a detailed and nuanced kickoff story examining the lack of discussion of education in the Democratic primary, the funding disparities between rich and poor school districts in battleground state Pennsylvania, and the education landscape in Philadelphia.

The Notebook was covering demonstrations in the city, such as those planned around the issue of immigration reform.

Noting that the immigration issue has many implications for schools and families, Mezzacappa said, “We’re looking for education angles, but not necessarily limiting ourselves to it.”

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