Before hurricane Katrina, New Orleans education reporters covered one big, famously dysfunctional public school board. As the city now becomes the first in the country to shift from a public school system to a mostly charter—albeit public charter—school system, local news organizations struggle with how to cover almost 50 boards presiding over just under 70 schools.
Months after the New Orleans news site The Lens debuted in early 2010, its editor in chief, Steve Beatty, created a team of freelancers called the Charter School Reporting Corps to cover the dozens of new school boards. I joined that crew of around 15 reporters, mostly newbies, who were paid $50 a pop to cover each and every monthly board meeting.
“We’ve had about 35 people move in and out of the Charter School Reporting Corps over the last three years,” says Beatty, a Times-Picayune and Atlanta Journal-Constitution alumnus. “We used some students as freelancers, and some of the coverage was a little uneven. But we were getting to about 93 percent of the meetings.”
But now, three years after its debut, the CSRC is being put on hiatus, a reflection of larger financial woes at what is locally considered the best of the many news sites created to cover tumultuous, post-Katrina New Orleans. Those watching to see how The Lens adjusts to these shortfalls fear charter school coverage in the city will suffer.
In the years right after the flood, the Picayune was contracting, and The New Orleans Advocate wasn’t around yet. Even today, as the national spotlight shines on New Orleans’ charter school movement, most local news outlets only jump on bigger charter school stories. The CSRC, on the other hand, reported every detail.
“[The CSRC] kept track of the issues that were facing each school’s governance, whether that meant them just adding a new school bus route, or whether they follow the fresh food guidelines instead of using canned peas,” says Beatty. “Lots of stuff that might not interest the average general reader outside of that school community, but it helped parents know that they were welcome at meetings, that it was okay to walk in.”
The CSRC was also invaluable in terms of teaching all these new school boards the laws, and what was expected from them in terms of transparency. Though public charters make their own rules to some extent, they are partly funded by the federal government, and so they must abide by open meetings laws.
“A lot of the boards operated in a kind of clubby way and didn’t follow all the open-meetings requirements, a simple but important thing that we latched onto early on,” says Mark Moseley, who coordinated the CSRC on and off for the last three years. “We were often the only members of the public represented at the meetings. And there was some noticeable progress in that area: A lot of boards became a lot more in tune with open meetings requirements. There was a sea change in compliance. We were the reason for that.”
Ostensibly, all of New Orleans’ roughly four dozen boards hold a monthly public meeting. Sending a CSRC reporter to each meeting at $50 per cost The Lens about $2,000 a month, says Beatty, plus a few hundred extra dollars per reporter for each summer’s school budget stories. In all, Beatty estimates The Lens spent about $28,000 a year on CSRC freelancers. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the Corps for its first year, matching an initial Lens investment two to one, Beatty says. “We were told when it was given that it was a one year startup grant, not a continuing funding opportunity. Halfway through the first year, we started raising money for future years.”
Like a public radio station, The Lens has so far run on memberships and other donations, plus several bigger grants. Such a system is naturally vulnerable to funding inconsistencies. “We recently had about $170,000 promised by donors that didn’t come through,” says Beatty, who claims that the topic of charter schools alienated some potential donors. “It’s not just that some donors don’t like negative coverage, some don’t like coverage that isn’t very supportive of charters,” he says. “Then people who hate the charter schools think we’re shilling for the charter movement, because if test scores go up, we say, ‘Test scores went up.’ But we also did a lot of standardized test cheating stories.”