united states project

Detroit News noses out a school reform ‘skunk works’

But the wider education story is hardly black and white. How can news outlets do more for readers on this critical issue?
June 19, 2013

DETROIT, MI — Education policy in Michigan and the debates around it have become a tangled thicket for reporters (and their audiences) to navigate. Among the complications: the rapid expansion of charter schools; emergency management of public schools in Detroit and beyond; and an experimental statewide school district. And, as we know from the recent work of Detroit News statehouse reporter Chad Livengood: the existence of a “secret work group” developing a “lower-cost model for K-12 public education” that looks like a voucher program in all but name.

In April, a confidential source sent Livengood a manila folder full of documents that the reporter described to me recently as a “packet of goodies.” From them, Livengood was able to break the news on April 19th of the secret group “that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder [and] has been meeting since December,” soon after “GOP lawmakers abandoned controversial legislation…that would have allowed corporations, municipalities and cultural institutions to run charter schools.” Per Livengood’s report:

The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a “skunk works” project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a “value school” that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.

Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the “skunk works” alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin’s secret development of fighter planes during World War II.

In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use “alternative” email accounts.

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The group’s plan, Livengood wrote, would expand online learning using fewer teachers and provide students with a debit card “similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor” to pay for “tuition.” While group members Livengood spoke with denied over and over again that this was a voucher program, the reporter told me they couldn’t provide an alternative word to describe it. As Livengood’s initial report explains, a voucher system “lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools–something prohibited by the state Constitution.”

Besides the lack of transparency around the “skunk works” group and its controversial model, news about the group made waves for its makeup: employees of software companies, charter school advocates, and five state employees (including the group’s leader and Gov. Snyder’s chief information officer, David Behen). Excluded from the group: members of the state’s education community (apart from one educator, Livengood wrote, who left the group when, he told Livengood, “it really kind of looked like…they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system.”) One group member told Livengood he “purposely didn’t put a bunch of teachers on (the panel)” to generate a different approach to delivering K-12 education through rapidly changing technology.

Before breaking the news, Livengood called Richard McLellan–one of the “skunk works” group’s members, a Lansing lawyer, and vouchers advocate–and Gov. Snyder to ask about the group. McLellan told him, “You’re not supposed to know about that.” Gov. Snyder acknowledged that he knew about the group. “That’s a key point,” Livengood told me in a recent interview, “because [Snyder] proceeded to tell media the next couple days that he didn’t know about it.” On April 20, the News ran a piece featuring Snyder’s defense of the group, which the governor described as people “get[ting] together and try[ing] to come up with new ideas and try[ing] to innovate and bring those ideas forward.” Snyder, who Livengood pointed out “made government transparency a top priority since taking office in 2011,” called questions about the group’s secrecy “overblown.”

The Detroit News stayed with the story by filing a massive FOIA request with the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, with a particular interest in emails between the agency and the governor’s office about the working group. Beyond a report on the email contents, this move led to a new education story in late May. Livengood discovered that the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA)–a controversial, experimental state-run school reform program in which Michigan takes poorly performing schools and puts them in a statewide school district–“embellished” its status and authority in a successful $35 million federal grant application. According to a May 24 article co-written by Livengood and reporter Jennifer Chambers, among other embellishments, “the application to the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year teacher merit pay program claimed the reform district with 15 Detroit schools had legislative permission to grow to 60 schools in 10 urban districts by 2017, which it doesn’t.”

The News‘s “skunk works” and EAA reports both generated a great deal of debate in Michigan. Snyder ultimately turned the working group over to the state superintendent, who disavowed the voucher-like program; the group is now simply talking about improvements to classroom technology–and, with a promise of greater transparency, invitations to join the group have gone out stakeholders in the education community.

The Detroit News should be proud of its strong reporting. But the education reform story is a many-headed monster, full of overlapping characters, wonky details, and less-than-transparent power dynamics. School reform is still a top priority for the state government–at the Mackinac Policy Conference in May, which featured reform advocate Michelle Rhee as a keynoter, the state announced that it raised $59 million dollars for the EAA’s expansion. No doubt there are more stories out there, waiting to be broken.

Here, then, are a few ideas for how the The Detroit News and other news outlets might do more with their reporting on this topic, helping it resonate with regular folks as well as insiders:

Explain your terms high up (and/or in a sidebar)

In The Detroit News’s Educational Achievement Authority story, for example, it isn’t clear what the EAA actually is. The reporters refer to it, in the fifth paragraph, as a “school reform agency,” but that’s still pretty foggy for anyone who hasn’t been closely following the initiative that has been operating for less than a year. Despite previous coverage of the EAA, plenty of people likely still don’t know what it is. Or they need a reminder. And they won’t get past two paragraphs about it without some kind of anchoring explanation from the writer.

A decent model of an explanation, neatly integrated into a news story, is in this Macomb Daily piece, which, in the first sentence, describes EAA as “a new independent statewide education system for failing Michigan schools.” Even better, a recent Crain’s Detroit Business piece clearly describes the system in its third sentence: “The EAA is a new school system that began operation last year and put Detroit’s 15 worst performing schools under one administrative roof and designed a whole new model for educating those students.” It might only be improved by noting that the new school system is state-run.

Clarify how the story impacts regular folks

What’s really at stake for people? How do these wonky debates and political machinations take shape in the real lives of citizens–particularly parents with a stake in understanding what can realistically be built into quality education alternatives, and what values are embedded in them? Livengood’s startling Detroit News reports were published in late spring, just at the time when many parents are making decisions about where to enroll their children for the coming school year. Did these news pieces serve to guide parents at all in understanding their options–the benefit of an EAA or non-EAA school, for example?

This is difficult coverage to provide. These types of questions don’t need to be addressed in every iteration of an unfolding story, but should at least be featured in meaningful follow-up coverage that delineates what the breaking news means for parents trying to assess Michigan’s education opportunities (and limits) in real-life terms. The Detroit News and other outlets on the beat should remember why this is public service reporting: it’s not simply because of the political gamesmanship, but because parents and children are caught in the middle of the policy debates and pet projects. They depend on quality coverage to help them make sense of it all.

Good (and sourced) data are important too. How many kids are we talking about in a particular school reform story? What communities are they coming from? As Livengood told me, sometimes the story is in the weeds–but, don’t forget to remind readers about the bigger picture, too.

Tag the ongoing coverage with a common name

Mark stories as part of, for example, a “politics of education” series. This is particularly important for occasional series, like the one the News effectively ran over the last two months, where the varied threads might otherwise be difficult for readers to weave together. The text of online articles should also include all the appropriate links to previous coverage: this was sorely missed in the News stories. Even when I was seeking out specific News pieces, they were difficult to find online. More casual readers just entering the story can use links to backtrack and better follow the story. Tags and links are an easy way to jog readers’ memory on the story, while bringing coherence to an unfolding narrative that risks spilling over the brim.

Connect coverage to strong policy analysis

School reform is a hot topic across the country, including at the federal level, and a lot of policy analysis is being generated that can help anchor news stories with significant context. Reporters, of course, should make every effort to accurately describe any organization cited in or otherwise tapped for their coverage–such as any particular focus or political lean. A recent Michigan Radio piece on poorly-performing charter schools featured analysis by a The Education Trust–Midwest, which Michigan Radio described as “a statewide nonpartisan policy, research, and advocacy organization.”

Other resources that reporters might explore include the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University (“an independent research center”); the nonpartisan Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, and the independent Center for Education Policy, which advocates for public schools. Education reporters would also do well to turn to smart policy analysts like Dana Goldstein, a left-leaning writer and fellow with the nonpartisan and nonprofit New America Foundation, to connect the news in Michigan with trends that are unfolding across the country.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.