What did we learn from coverage of Romney’s Philly school visit?

More reporters should have used Romney’s charter school stop as a teaching moment

PENNSYLVANIA — At first glance, Mitt Romney’s campaign appearance last Thursday at a West Philadelphia charter school seemed a bit odd. Candidates generally go where the votes are, and Philadelphia voters delivered 83 percent of theirs to Barack Obama in 2008.

But the issue of public education is very much on the minds of voters in Philadelphia, its suburbs, and Pennsylvania as a whole. The Philadelphia school district is looking at large deficits and plans to close dozens of schools. Voters across the Commonwealth—home to more than 500 school districts—are grappling with budget cuts, property tax increases, and more. And the issue has been emotional in West Philadelphia specifically, with local state Sen. Anthony Williams a key proponent of school choice efforts.

The day before his West Philadelphia visit—featuring a roundtable discussion with teachers and school administrators—Romney unveiled his education agenda in a speech at the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. Expanding “parental choice” was a key theme in Romney’s speech (full speech here)—as was attacking Obama’s connections to teachers’ unions—and a theme Romney returned to on Thursday (adding to the mix more talk about class size and the importance of two-parent homes).

Romney’s stop at the formerly public and now charter Guion S. Bluford Elementary School—which is run by a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that operates five city schools and is headed by music producer and educator Kenny Gamble—
provided a catalyst for local debate and protest as well as a chance for media outlets here to do more than report on campaign trail sound bites already familiar to voters. Some reporters made better use of this opportunity than others.

The Philadelphia Inquirer honed in on the issue of class size, noting a teacher at the roundtable challenged Romney on his assertion that smaller class size matters less to student performance than teacher and parent involvement. The paper laudably took the step of reaching out to education experts not present at Thursday’s event and reported that from them “Romney’s comments on class size drew mixed reactions,” reactions which helped identify for readers some of the complexities involved in—and often left out of campaign talk on—measuring and improving student performance.

The Inquirer also made this keen observation about the event:

The setting of Romney’s 90-minute morning visit was striking: He was bringing his Republican campaign into overwhelmingly Democratic territory, staging a media event in a school where students pass through hallways adorned with a portrait of President Obama…

Noting the visit to West Philly came as a surprise to both the local city councilman and the school district, the African American community-focused Philadelphia Tribune wrapped Romney’s remarks with reactions from local African-American leaders, as well as union and Obama campaign officials. Unlike Inquirer readers, the Tribune’s audience received no help navigating the claims and counter-claims with which they were presented.

On the radio, KYW (CBS) offered brief reports on Romney’s visit and the related protest featuring Mayor Michael Nutter and others. (While KYW is an all-news station, regrettably not all of its audio reports seem to remain available online.)

Public radio station WHYY added some deeper context with an analysis by Dave Davies exploring, “Why Romney Would Visit a Charter School in West Philly.” Per Davies:

Why would Mitt Romney, who needs to court Pennsylvania’s working class Democrats and suburban independents make a campaign appearance in today in the heart of Obama country, visiting a charter school in West Philadelphia?

Well, for one thing, he gets coverage in the huge Philadelphia media market, which reaches many of those swing voters he needs.

And there were some nice “optics,” including Romney being serenaded by black school kids at the Bluford Charter School…

When Romney smiled at those kids and sat down for a roundtable with African-American teachers and administrators, it wasn’t because he expects to get votes in West Philadelphia’s fourth ward, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 20 to one.

The target, really, was white voters.

It was a signal to white liberal and moderate voters that he cares about urban issues and is not indifferent to the poor. The idea was to give permission to white moderates to vote for him if they’re dissatisfied with the president.

Davies’ brief interview with David Fattah, father of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and board member at Bluford Charter, was a solid inclusion. In focusing his analysis on the strategy behind—and local reactions to—Romney’s visit, however, Davies’ report (now online) didn’t give listeners as much on the specifics of (let alone practicability of) Romney’s education plans.

Local television, too, offered typical (read: brief and unremarkable) same-day coverage of Romney’s visit, epitomized by this WPVI-TV (ABC) segment reporting that “apparently Mr. Romney wanted to see, and be seen, at the well-regarded charter school,” and featuring some of those “nice ‘optics’” noted by WHYY’s Davies. WPVI-TV’s John Rawlins observed Romney’s “was something of a soft visit here …no fiery partisan rhetoric, and he didn’t even mention the president by name during the round table discussion.”

How Romney’s education plank might fare in practice is an open and critical question. A National Journal breakdown by Fawn Johnson suggests that capacity restrictions at good schools and other logistical challenges would sink much of Romney’s plan, or at least keep it from being fully realized. Writing at The Huffington Post, Michael Petrilli of the education policy group the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called Romney’s agenda a good start with room and time to be made better.

Either way, Romney’s education reform ideas provide great fodder for editors and reporters looking for an opportunity to dig into an issue of substance, something with real consequences for students and parents. I covered education issues in my not-so-distant newspaper days, and I recognize the challenges and frustrations of this sort of reporting, of making sense of and then pushing past the spin from various sides with a dog (but maybe not a kid) in the education fight.

Among the questions I had after digesting Romney’s specific plans and the related coverage:

What options exist for low-income students? What options do local residents want?

What would happen if parents had vouchers? Where could they go or not go?

Where and how have choice programs demonstrated success?

What plans for improvement do existing public school leaders offer? How will these plans work with existing and future cost structures?

What does it mean to hold districts and schools accountable? How does that work?

The layers and complexities are many. What’s sorely needed—in Pennsylvania, other swing states, and the rest of the country—is reporting that moves beyond the optics of one charter school campaign stop, beyond the claims and counter-claims from campaigns and interest groups, and digs into the candidates’ policy proposals.

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Ken Knelly served as metro editor at The Times-Tribune in Scranton and as senior editor for government and business at The State in Columbia, S.C. He owns Clearberries, a communications consulting and training firm, and works for a Christian college in Northeastern Pennsylvania.