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By Alexander Russo

This story is co-published with the Columbia Journalism Review, a nonprofit project to encourage excellence in journalism.

You might not know it if you live outside of Southern California, but the nation’s second-largest school district — Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) — recently held a nasty and expensive school board election that culminated in the surprise defeat of a teachers union-backed board chairman and the election of two other board members that the unions had opposed.  

The runoff was a generational showdown and a school reform litmus test, in which two Teach for America alumni— one a Boomer, one a Millennial—faced off. Incumbent board chairman Steve Zimmer was defeated by an untested challenger named Nick Melvoin by a whopping 14 percentage points. The national trade publication Education Week called it a “major upset.”

The race was the biggest education campaign since last fall’s $41 million charter school debate in Massachusetts, and the biggest education showdown since the Betsy DeVos confirmation fight earlier this year. When all was said and done, campaign spending totaled roughly $17 million — a record amount for a local school board election.

Yet the race and its surprise outcome were met with tepid coverage by national media outlets that didn’t seem interested in a race that was emblematic of national tensions within the Democratic party and the school reform movement.

“I don’t feel like there was anywhere near adequate coverage of what the race meant within the Democratic Party, the labor movement, or the state legislature,” says Zimmer, who left office at the end of June.

Local coverage, while plentiful, focused mostly on the eye-popping amounts of money being spent and on a single hot-button issue: support for charter schools. Only now, in the aftermath of the race, are some of the most intriguing issues—controversial changes made at some district schools, budget problems, and campaign strategy—being unearthed.

“What got lost in the [local] coverage, which was focused so much on charter schools, was that there was too little attention paid to other problems that the district faces,” says EdSource’s Louis Freedberg, whose outlet provided some coverage of the race. “I wouldn’t imagine many outside LA and our readers were following that race.”

This isn’t the only time in recent memory that education journalism has fallen down on the job of covering an important political contest. It’s a pattern that raises serious questions about whether education reporters are best suited to do the job on their own.

[Disclosure: The Grade is supported in part by a grant from the Broad Foundation, which has also helped fund the Los Angeles Times’ education coverage.]

Coverage of LA School Board Race 2017

A sampling of local and national coverage of the race.

LAUSD is the nation’s largest district with an independent, elected school board. Board members oversee the education of 640,000 students and an annual budget of nearly $8 billion.

However, in the past decade, LAUSD has lost about 100,000 students, due to demographic factors and charter schools (which now enroll roughly 16 percent of the area’s public school students). According to budget projections, the school system will face a deficit in two years.

This year, three of seven board seats were up for a vote. Incumbent Mónica García retained her seat outright in the primary. In the runoff election, two relatively unknown challengers faced off to fill a vacated seat. Chairman Zimmer, in his eighth year on the board, was forced into a runoff against challenger Melvoin.

Experience suggested that progressives and incumbents would have an advantage. Several pro-reform education efforts and candidates have gone down in flames in other parts of the country, and the reform movement is considered to be on the defensive within the Democratic party. And, despite outspending their opponents, charter backers in Los Angeles have failed numerous times to get their candidates elected and keep them in office. The races “should have been a cakewalk” for union-backed candidates, according to the California-centric on-line journal Capital & Main.

In Los Angeles and elsewhere, progressives are battling more moderate, centrist voices. We see this happening within the Democratic National Committee and the national teachers unions. Similar dynamics inform resistance groups like Indivisible and Black Lives Matter and civil rights groups like the NAACP. An election this big, charged with so many national themes and implications, deserved national media attention.

Despite controversies including massive outside funding, Democratic infighting, and the surprise outcome, coverage from national news outlets was skimpy and slow. The Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the PBS NewsHour all passed.* The day after the race concluded, The New York Times included a writeup of the outcome in its “California Today” email newsletter, then posted the story online. Three weeks later, The Washington Post published a freelance piece.

That was pretty much it.

MAy 18 NYT story

Day-after email newsletter coverage from the New York Times, also posted online.

So why didn’t the national media cover was happening?

For all its size and importance, Southern California gets short shrift from national media outlets. And the national education press corps based in DC and New York City has been focused almost exclusively on the Trump administration since November.

Some national outlets just didn’t see the board race as a national story.

Julie Bloom, California editor for The New York Times national desk, explained in an email that “we considered this school board election to be important but of primary interest to our California readers.”

LA Times May 17

LA Times coverage focused on positions of outside funders as much as on candidates’ views.

Local mainstream news coverage, by contrast, was abundant but not particularly insightful.

Both the LA Times metro section and KPCC (a Southern California public radio station) devote considerable resources to education news. However, local media lavished most of its coverage of the race on campaign spending and the charter school controversy. The LA Times day-after story described the race as “a proxy war between wealthy charter school advocates and public employee unions” and the outcome as “a dramatic political shift.”

As a result, LA voters were left with all sorts of questions about the school board candidates. What moments or decisions made Zimmer so objectionable to charter backers that they were willing to mount a multimillion-dollar campaign against him? What caused backers to choose Melvoin over another challenger in the primary, or persuaded voters to overlook Melvoin’s lack of experience?

March 8 SCPR screenshot

Screenshot of early March KPCC story titled “Who’s behind all the big spending on the LA school board primary.”

To some observers, the relentless focus on campaign spending and charter schools seemed exaggerated.

“They really only covered the money,” says Karen Wolfe, an activist and former charter school parent who supported Zimmer. “Everything was framed in terms of the two moneyed interests that are driving the debate… Nobody was talking about education.”  

Voters didn’t particularly care about charter schools, says Wolfe. They were frustrated by more immediate issues: controversial interventions at a handful of schools within Zimmer’s Westside district, budget cuts affecting things like school libraries, and the looming possibility of school closures.

“It seemed like the reporting was all about charter schools versus traditional schools,” agrees Allison Holdorff, a Westside parent and advocate who ran against Melvoin in the primary and now works for him as a senior staffer. Charters and funding became the dominant narrative. Efforts to persuade reporters to write about deeper issues were rebuffed, she says.

What got left out, says Gary Borden, an official with the California Charter Schools Association, was in-depth coverage of whose claims had more merit. “Frankly, I thought the coverage of the races was pretty thin.”

Some journalists who worked on the race disagree that they over-focused on the money and its sources.

“It was a historically expensive election; that’s important and I would hesitate to say that we did too much coverage of it,” says KPCC education editor Maura Walz. “I think it’s accurate to say that voters in these districts were curious about why their local races were attracting such high sums.”

Howard Blume, the LA Times’ veteran reporter and lead on the election story, also felt the focus on the money was the right one. “It’s worth noting that I think this criticism emanates almost exclusively from the side that spent the most money.”

Other journalists share the concerns expressed by Wolfe and others.

“There is a danger that the narrative becomes all about the machinery of politics,” rather than real-world effects, says Steve Snyder, who edits an education-focused nonprofit outlet called The 74 and oversees the online news site LA School Report. Covering who won and who lost is important, as is who put in all the money. But, says Snyder, “it’s not just a big chess game.”

In fact, concerns about the budget—not the candidates’ positions on charter schools—seemed to win the LA Times’ editorial page endorsement for Melvoin. And frustrations with school-specific interventions and the status quo contributed heavily to Zimmer’s loss, according to Zimmer and others.

June 8 Washington Post LA

The Washington Post hired freelancer Rob Kuznia to tell the story long after election day.

Ironically, the local news focus on campaign spending didn’t result in much attention to media strategy, field organizing, and on-the-ground dynamics. How good was the ground effort behind Melvoin? How did the field effort behind Zimmer compare to previous cycles? Where were the hotbeds of support and criticism for the candidates? What were the concerns that informed that support and that criticism? Few of these questions found very clear answers.

“None of the reporters were aggressively covering the business of the campaigns that way,” says Borden, the charter schools advocate.

According to parent activist Wolfe, whose post-election analysis may be the most revealing document produced about the contest thus far, the election and its unexpected result were not, in fact, all about the money that was spent.

The people who ran Zimmer’s campaign “were talking to each other, not talking to voters,” she says. Not nearly enough mailers were sent out during the time period absentee ballots were being mailed in, Wolfe also noted. Zimmer’s campaign offices opened a mere five weeks before the runoff election.

In a post-election letter to supporters, Zimmer noted that his opponents targeted precincts that were angry with him because of specific school-level decisions he’d made. The letter described an opposition effort that focused on getting out votes against him in three relatively well-off neighborhoods. This, too, went largely unreported.

Asked about the lack of coverage of campaign issues like these, Blume says, “It’s easier to pick out key elements after the fact than beforehand.” Blume said he tracked much of this information, but a lot of it was “speculative and went much farther into the weeds than editors (and probably readers) would have tolerated.”

There are limits to how much inside baseball general readers are interested in. But voters deserved more “inside-the-campaign” stories, more “who-are-the-voters-and-what-are-their-concerns” stories.

The runoff between Melvoin and Zimmer may have been a proxy war at the fundraising level, but the race seems to have been won and lost over more specific, visceral issues and over campaigns stumbles and strategies. Neither of these areas got enough attention – the latter because it doesn’t play to most education reporters’ strengths.

There were two education contests in Los Angeles this spring. Neither of those contests got the coverage it deserved.

Ultimately, there were two education contests in Los Angeles this spring. There was the big-money showdown between organized labor and pro-charter forces that the national media could and should have covered. And there was the neighborhood-level debate over the past eight years’ worth of school-level decisions that local outlets should have addressed. Neither of those contests got the coverage it deserved.

Distracted by DeVos and unable to see the broader political themes, national media outlets were mostly late or uninterested. Local outlets tried to cover the big-money showdown and the proxy war, rather than report on the neighborhood issues that mattered to voters.

This is a familiar challenge for education campaign coverage. A review by The Grade of the $41 million charter school ballot fight in Massachusetts last fall found that “national coverage was surprisingly sparse, and local coverage, while abundant, focused too much attention on the political battle between advocates.”

A more recent review of the DeVos confirmation coverage revealed that education reporters lacked in-depth understanding of Congressional processes and dynamics that would have helped them get beneath the surface drama. The final vote wasn’t the cliffhanger that readers were led to believe.

Maybe it’s unfair to ask education reporters to step in as occasional campaign experts, or to ask them to cover education and politics at the same time. Perhaps it would help to assign such stories to political or statehouse reporters, or to pair political reporters with education reporters on races as big as these. Anecdotally, coordination among education reporters and their political or statehouse counterparts seems fairly common, especially at smaller outlets. (It seems to happen less frequently at larger outlets, or on an ad hoc basis.)  

The idea of giving political stories to political reporters doesn’t go over well with education reporters like Blume. “It could be just as limiting to cover a school board race merely from a political perspective without any attachment to the underlying education issues,” he says.

But at least one of the candidates would have welcomed a deeper, more political take on the race. “You’re living in the midst of a once in a generation shift,” says Zimmer. These races have a much larger context than some editors and reporters might initially understand, according to Zimmer.

The upcoming California School Superintendent’s race could be a doozy, as could the race to be the next governor of Colorado. Journalists won’t have too long to wait for the next opportunity to cover a big, expensive campaign with lots of education interests at the fore.

Previous pieces published at CJR can be found here.
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that Politico “passed” on coverage of the school board race and some of the approaches encouraged here. That statement overlooks Politico stories such as this April piece by David Siders and this Politico Pro piece from May by Kimberly Hefling. The Grade regrets this oversight.