Education has emerged as an unusually big part of the early 2020 campaign season. Who’s covering it — and how are they doing so far?
By Alexander Russo
After a 2016 presidential campaign in which K-12 education received little attention from the candidates, ideas to improve elementary and secondary education are back in the political spotlight.
In the past few weeks, major Democratic candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris, and former Vice President Joe Biden have each unveiled comprehensive-seeming education proposals. Others have addressed education topics and could roll out their own competing plans.
This surge of activity raises several journalism-related questions. Who is covering the education aspects of the 2020 Democratic primary, how are they doing so far, and what could they do better? Are we seeing the smart, high-quality coverage that we need?
Based on a look back at some of the coverage that’s been produced and conversations with a handful of observers, the consensus seems to be that the amount of coverage has been decent so far. Accuracy and balance haven’t been serious problems.
But the coverage generally lacks the level of in-depth reporting and analysis that would be really helpful at this early but critical stage of the campaign.
We need the big picture, not just the policy details. And there are still some obvious holes that need addressing between now and the first debate.
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Recent US News story by Lauren Camera
You may have heard about the “money primary,” which focuses on how much candidates raise in the early critical stages of a campaign. Something similar is happening when it comes to education. Let’s call it the education primary.
Several of the major Democratic candidates are currently engaged in a bidding war for the support of education-focused primary voters and organizations.
Harris has proposed spending $315 billion over 10 years to raise teachers’ salaries. Biden has proposed tripling the federal Title I education program to help schools in low-income neighborhoods. Sanders has proposed nearly $1 billion in magnet school funding.
The motivation behind the activity isn’t hard to figure out. As Vox’s Libby Nelson writes, “with 24 Democrats running for president and nearly 5 million unionized teachers energized by a year of strikes and action, endorsements from the two major teachers unions could be key in the Democratic primary.”
This surge creates both opportunities and challenges for reporters, editors, and news outlets. How can they provide enough high-quality coverage without swamping readers or wasting resources pursuing unproductive storylines?
A Vox explainer focused on the Biden proposal
Plenty of education reporters and outlets have covered the education angles to the campaign so far, either solo or with the help of political reporters assigned to the campaigns.
By and large, the coverage of the individual plans has been accurate and plentiful.
US News & World Report, USA Today, the New York Times, and EdWeek have produced some solid education-related campaign coverage. Chalkbeat’s national team has weighed in here and there and regularly features the campaign in its weekly newsletter.
Some of the most helpful coverage has attempted to identify trends, compare different proposals, or explain the underlying dynamics motivating them.
For example, EdWeek’s Alyson Klein wrote an April overview headlined Democrats Seeking White House Make Teacher-Friendly Pitches. More recently, US News & World Report published 2020 Dems Go Big on Public Education.
However, a handful of coverage issues have cropped up.
A Reuters story mistakenly claimed that critics of charter schools accuse them of “mainly serving middle-class, predominately white populations,” which isn’t actually something that charters are most commonly accused of doing.
The Washington Post seems to be relying on blogger Valerie Strauss rather than its K-12 education reporters to help cover the education aspects of the campaign, which can only lead to problems.
And, so far at least, the education teams at NPR and the Associated Press have hardly covered the candidates’ education proposals at all.*
EdWeek overview of the campaign proposals
Some of those who follow education closely are expressing concerns.
Leading education voice Diane Ravitch published a scathing critique of a New York Times story on the Sanders education proposal, calling it a “hit job” for its focus on Sanders’ charter school proposal and its failure to focus on the additional funding he is proposing.
“My main complaint is that reporters are not doing enough fact-checking,” the Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli says, commenting on the overall coverage he’s seen. “They are accepting candidates’ claims at face value instead of pushing back.”
For American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the coverage so far hasn’t captured the size and scope of the shift in Democratic priorities since the Obama administration. Sanders has a K-12 education plan this time around. Biden’s position on charter schools is “a 180-degree shift” from Obama education secretary Arne Duncan, according to Weingarten. “I don’t think the media coverage is quite capturing that yet,” she said in a phone interview. “I think there’s a lot more to cover.”
“My main reaction has been excitement,” Center for American Progress Action Fund staffer Lisette Partelow said in a phone interview. “I feel like I’ve seen quite a bit of coverage in a lot of mainstream outlets, not just education trade papers.” Like Weingarten, Partelow would like to see more attention paid to just how big a change this level of activity is compared with previous presidential campaign cycles when K-12 education had to beg for attention.
The Century Foundation’s Conor Williams worries that coverage has tended to buy into the notion that piecemeal, cobbled-together proposals will necessarily address the challenges American schools face. In a recent column, he described what he sees as the limits of the current plans. In a phone interview, he told me that the Biden, Sanders, and Harris proposals all “sound big, but they’re actually underpowered for the real problems at hand.”
Columbia University professor Jeff Henig notes that the current proposals should be covered as symbolic documents rather than examined for specific policy implications. “I don’t think the proposals right now are detailed and specific enough for journalists to sink their teeth into,” he said in a phone interview. Henig also suggests that coverage should remind readers of the limited role that the federal government plays in K-12 education and provide a broad sense of whether the plans are narrowly targeted based on need or designed to spread benefits widely.
New York Times coverage of the Sanders proposal
My own take is that we’re not seeing enough reported analysis and comparison. Each of the proposals gets covered, but somewhat in isolation, with a focus on the proposal details. But are the proposals different from their predecessors? Are they actionable or well-targeted? How did they take shape, and what was the campaign trying to accomplish in conceiving them as they did?
Have they moved the needle among primary voters, campaign donations, or poll results?
I’d love to know—and I’d prefer to hear it in well-reported stories told by education journalists rather than directly from advocates and pundits. It’s not that reporters should necessarily evaluate the proposals themselves or engage in punditry, but rather engage with experts and observers to help readers assess the underlying issues and dynamics. And they should do so in their published stories, not just on social media.
I also hope that between now and the Miami debate, reporters will fill in some of the holes in coverage. There are so many storylines that remain to be told, nationally and otherwise.
There was a ton of coverage of Harris’s $315 billion proposal to give teachers raises when it came out, but little that seemed to get at why her campaign felt the need to go first and what if any impact her proposals had on her candidacy. Did it help?
Sen. Cory Booker has talked about some of his education ideas, but we’ve yet to see much reporting about whether it’s working for him to focus on other issues despite (or because of) his much-debated track record on education.
While Sanders has addressed racial inequality in his plan and Warren said that she’d pick a teacher as her education secretary, there hasn’t been much in-depth coverage about either of their track records on K-12 education. What have they done and said before now?
We don’t know if or when Warren is going to roll out her own K-12 education plan. And we still don’t know much of anything about how the various proposals are being received by teachers unions and other education leaders who will make a difficult decision to endorse a liberal or pick another moderate.
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NPR story about proposals to raise teachers’ salaries
Of course, more coverage isn’t always better. EdWeek deputy managing editor Mark Bomster says that the team he oversees is trying to avoid too much “horserace” coverage and trying to take a “measured approach.” Sometimes that means waiting for a topic to come up again or seeing what the themes might be, rather than writing another story.
“We don’t want to get too micro-focused” on proposal details or inside baseball, Bomster said in a phone interview.
Indeed, education journalists are supremely vulnerable to wonking out on policy details and writing stories that suggest education is going to be a big issue in a political campaign, giving readers an exaggerated sense of the role of education in the campaign.
We’ve seen it happen before. Reporting on the 2018 midterms, several media outlets passed along claims about record numbers of educators running for office that later turned out to be overstated.
But I still think there’s room for more, deeper campaign coverage than we’re getting so far.
The Century Foundation’s Williams recommends a recent Vox podcast segment in which journalists Matt Yglesias, Libby Nelson, and Dylan Scott examine the plans in depth, explain the political angles, and even have time to provide some of the backstory behind the ideas.
I thought that Dana Goldstein and Sydney Ember’s New York Times piece on the Sanders plan clearly explained the motivations behind the plan’s features, not just the features themselves.
And NPR’s Planet Money team took a step in the right direction with What Economists Think About Democrats’ New Education Proposals, highlighting the apparent disconnect between economists’ preference for targeted increases and the campaign proposals for across-the-board pay raises.
I’m hoping to see more reporting like that.
*An earlier version of this story failed to note that AP’s political team has written several stories about education proposals from Democratic candidates.