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VOL. 129 | NO. 180 | Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Raising Concerns Over Education Coverage

TOM HRACH | Special to The Daily News

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With just one person reporting on schools in a metropolitan area of more than 1.3 million people, The Commercial Appeal is forging ahead with a relationship with a nonprofit journalism organization dedicated to covering education.

Students at the Maxine Smith STEAM Academy. The association of news organization Chalkbeat with some organizations that support charter schools raises some flags.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The newspaper announced July 17 that it is working with Chalkbeat Tennessee, which opened a bureau office in Memphis in October. The relationship carries some concern because the organization gets some of its money from groups pushing charter schools, a hot-button issue in education that evokes strong emotions from supporters and detractors.

Commercial Appeal Editor Louis Graham said Memphis readers are hungry for more information about what’s happening with local schools, and he welcomes the chance to give readers more local coverage.

“You can see one of the reasons I am motivated to have them because they have the resources that I do not have anymore,” Graham said.

Chalkbeat has four reporters covering education in Memphis, and the organization has one person in Nashville.

As a nonprofit news organization, Chalkbeat is funded by individuals and organizations, many of which are dedicated to certain political issues. Those include large contributors such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation.

Both of those groups have in the past supported the effort to establish charter schools, and in Memphis there are more than 40 charter schools.

The announcement came with some skepticism from Meghan Vaziri of Memphis, who wrote a letter to the newspaper displaying her displeasure.

“This creates an obvious conflict of interest in your reporting of educational issues,” she wrote in the July 22 letter published in the Commercial Appeal. “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have a stated agenda as regards education – and it’s not likely that a reporter will dare to write an article that is against that agenda now. Why are subscribers paying you for your paper when what its reporters write on this most important of issues (education) will be dictated by corporate interests?”

Graham said he’s confident that news from Chalkbeat will be a benefit to Memphis readers and not pose a potential conflict of interest. And if it does, then he said he would immediately sever the relationship.

“I am not worried about it for a couple of reasons. I watched their work for a year. I spent a year reading them. I have been very impressed with the level of their work. I see nothing that leads me to believe that is an issue,” Graham said.

Graham also said that Chalkbeat gets money from many different organizations, including some right in Memphis, and not all have a single political agenda.

“It is diluted so there is not any one organization that has a lot of influence,” Graham said.

As of early August, just two stories written by Chalkbeat reporters have appeared in The Commercial Appeal.

Graham said he has been impressed with the quality of the people Chalkbeat Tennessee has working for them, including its bureau chief Daarel Burnette. Burnette, a former newspaper reporter who previously worked at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said there is a dearth of reporting about education.

In Shelby County, the issues dealing with education are numerous. Charter schools are flourishing. The suburbs are creating their own districts. State standards are proliferating, and students are being held to higher standards.

The county school system is one of the city’s largest employers, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is the highest paid public official in the city. School news affects thousands of employees, students and parents every day. A majority of the property taxes people pay in Shelby County goes to support the local schools.

Schools are a huge untapped source of news, and there are few people reporting on them.

“There is an entire world out there that wants this kind of information,” Burnette said. “These are very important issues, but very few people have the time and the interest to look into this stuff.”

Chalkbeat already has offices in New York, Colorado and Indiana.

As for potential conflicts of interest with funders supporting charter schools, Burnette said it is a concern but that the more information people have about their schools, the better.

“Most of the time I tell people to just read our stories and decide for themselves. Most reporters have to get a paycheck from somewhere, so there is always going to be some issues with that,” Burnette said. “I have never talked to a funder or has a funder ever tried to influence our stories.”

Graham said at its peak, The Commercial Appeal had three full-time reporters covering education – two reporting on secondary schools and one on higher education. Now there is one person doing both. But he said the newspaper does have suburban reporters, who spend a lot of their time covering schools.

The six suburbs in Memphis as of this summer have launched their own districts, each of which operate its own schools, hires its own superintendent and has its own elected board.

“The landscape has changed dramatically in terms of education. It’s not so much that we have less manpower, but it is divided differently,” Graham said. “I view this as a net increase overall, and I hope this frees us up to get into the classroom stuff.”

Tom Hrach is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis.

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