In the last few weeks, the Capital-Gazette (Capital) has flipped from years of mindlessly repeating AACPS talking points to a critical stance, including a news story with multiple, competing sources. How well did it do?
Consider, first, where it is coming from. During the past year it has printed more than a dozen of the school superintendent’s feel-good op-eds. That has got to be some type of record. I’m not aware of any other politician or public official representing Anne Arundel County who has received even a fifth as much free publicity during the same period.
The Story of the Minister-Parent Who Criticized AACPS
The incident for me that typifies the Capital’s coverage during that period is the story of the African American minister whose kindergarten and first grade children were mistakenly placed on the wrong AACPS school bus without his knowledge. The minister had been waiting for his children at the bus stop and didn’t know where they were. Immediately after they weren’t dropped off by the bus, he went to their school to find out what happened, where he eventually discovered that his children had been placed on the wrong bus and been dropped off unaccompanied at the wrong location. School officials had initially responded to his queries that the policy was not to drop off children unaccompanied–until it was discovered that that in fact was what happened. School officials acknowledged this part of the account.
From here on accounts conflict, but it is clear that the local school officials didn’t like the minister’s attitude, which wasn’t adequately deferential, and the minister didn’t like the school officials’ attitudes, which weren’t adequately responsive. School officials were concerned that the agitated minister might endanger school staff, so called the police, who threatened to arrest him. To me, although this is an obviously extreme example, it nicely symbolizes AACPS’s instinctive response to parental criticism.
The incident was not reported in an AACPS press release. But it was printed at the top of the fold in a Washington Post page one Metro Section story with probably hundreds of thousands if not millions of readers. The headline ran: “School put girls on wrong bus, but dad nearly winds up in handcuffs.” The following day, the Baltimore Sun ran a major story on the same incident with the headline: “Arundel parent upset after children placed on wrong school bus.” When these stories ran in early February 2011, neither the Post nor Sun were regularly covering AACPS, which was in the Capital’s back yard. Neither the Post nor Sun story was written by an education beat reporter dependent on AACPS’s goodwill for a regular supply of stories.
Seven days after the Washington Post story, the Capital ran a relatively low profile version of the story with no acknowledgement of the high profile stories that had run in the Post and Sun. The headline of the story was “School called police on parent.”
The Minister refused to talk to the Capital and the story was primarily framed around the interpretation of the facts given by school officials and a sympathetic parent they referred the reporter to. The Minister anticipated the Capital’s coverage in a quote he gave to the Sun six days before: “Who ain’t going to yell because their kids are missing? How do I become the villain?”
Did the Minister exhibit good judgment by not continuing the dispute in the Capital? I think so. When you’re a parent, the schools effectively hold your children hostage. It’s just stupid, whether you are right or wrong, to criticize those who have so much control over the fate of those you love. I doubt that a single parent has sent their children through the AACPS school system without facing a similar dilemma. The vast majority recognize that criticism, even if perfectly just and to the benefit of many children, will only harm themselves.
My guess is that after the Minister had some days to reflect, he realized he was in one of those awful no-win situations, where it was in his best interest to let the school system frame the story the way it wanted. So instead of the focus of the story being on what AACPS did wrong, it was on the tragic mixup and what the Minister did wrong.
Would the Capital have run this story if it hadn’t first run in the Post and Sun, alerting its readers that they were missing an important story? I doubt it.
Should the Capital have acknowledged the earlier stories in the Post and Sun? The Capital is a for-profit business, so I believe it’s usually unreasonable to expect a company to credit a competitor in a favorable way. Moreover, story idea and press release plagiarism is rampant in the news media, which suggests such behaviors shouldn’t be viewed as a capital crime (no pun intended).
Should the Capital have run the story before the Washington Post? Yes. I don’t know if the Minister went to the Capital with the story and was brushed off, as the Capital usually does with such stories. My guess is that he did not. But it shouldn’t have mattered. The incident presumably showed up on the police blotter, and the Capital watches that blotter closely because it generates cheap, popular news, which can be seen from the crime stories that the Capital regularly publishes. But even if the Capital missed the blotter, it shouldn’t have let the Sun scoop it as well as the Post–and then wait another six days.
Should the Capital have provided a single non-school source that saw the world from the Minister’s perspective—a parent’s perspective? This, in my judgment, was the only unconscionable part of the Capital’s reporting, especially when a culture of parent intimidation and blaming parents for problems had become firmly rooted at AACPS (e.g., see my article, Maxwell’s Political Legacy, and the public comments of parents when Maxwell shifted the Countywide Citizen Advisory Committee from a bottom-up to top-down system).
So how did the Capital do in its recent articles on AACPS?
Two were commentaries arguing that the Board of Education should have opened the process when selecting an interim superintendent, just as the County Council did when selecting an interim County Executive earlier this year. I am ambivalent about this recommendation.
On the one hand, the Board of Education regularly reports to school staff and parents that it doesn’t believe in micromanaging the superintendent and that its primary job is simply to hire the superintendent and evaluate his overall performance. Its actual behavior also closely corresponds to this claim. This would suggest that at least the part of its job selecting a superintendent should be transparent. Given that the Board costs the public hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (mostly to pay for its support staff and ongoing education), the public could feel that it is getting some accountability for all that money (incidentally, mayoral control cuts out the expenses associated with a do-nothing school board).
On the other hand, I don’t know a single school board that has opened up the process to the extent the County Council did, although I’m sure somewhere at least one exists. The way it is usually done, if it is opened up at all, is to have the community meet the finalists, a relatively small number of individuals. Given that the superintendent is an appointed rather than elective position, I think that is a reasonable compromise.
What I do unambivalently believe is that the only way to have a meaningful public discussion about a superintendent search or any other major decision the school board makes requires something very different than an open superintendent search. It requires a school board that disagrees—and in public. The public may hate it when its politicians disagree in public. But this has proved a vital requirement for educating both the press and the public about important issues. Legislative accountability without public disagreement among legislators has proved impossible.
Like it or not, if you realistically expect the Capital to report on important issues made by the Board of Education, it is going to have to be spoon fed the information. Creating a system of representation where there is meaningful differences of opinion among members of a legislative body such as the Board of Education is critical to making this possible. And this type of transparency won’t happen until the method of selecting members of the Board changes. This doesn’t necessarily require an elected school board (and there is nothing worse than a poorly designed elected school board, which is, sad to say, what we’d probably get); a well-designed appointed school board can do the job just fine (for my take on the current appointed system, see here). What is required is meaningful diversity of viewpoints on a school board. And by this I don’t mean gender, location, and racial diversity (what political scientists sometimes call “descriptive representation”); I mean real diversity. And this, in turn, requires not only an improved method of selecting school board members but also a weakening of the current mechanisms that make it so easy to intimidate school board members and keep them in line. The day school board members find a need to explain themselves in public and are willing to ask probing, public questions to both the staff and each other, is the day when having an open superintendent search really won’t be necessary.
The third Capital article reported that Maxwell received more than $90,000 at the end of his term as AACPS superintendent for unused leave. The Capital played this story on the front cover and got a strong reaction. On Maxwell’s compensation, there really isn’t much I can say since I’ve already written so much on this subject (see here and here). The Capital has always avoided reporting on pension compensation, especially the games played to maximize such compensation below the public radar, and that didn’t change here. But at least the public got a little sense of how unused leave, including sick leave, can be an important part of a compensation package, adding about 15% to the type of salary that gets reported out of the AACPS PR office. Perhaps best, the public got a little sense that you have to actually read contracts to understand what’s in them. But that’s not enough, one has to understand the implications of the terms in the contracts, how they relate to other agreements, and how they are spun for public consumption. Given the young, inexperienced, numbers-shy, poorly paid, and controversy averse reporters the Capital usually assigns to its education beat (my estimate is that the Capital has gone through at least five education reporters in the last ten years), I don’t see the Capital being able or willing to do this. But, of course, one can always hope. And with the Capital’s deep pockets (the Capital is owned by a multi-billionaire family; see Understanding The Capital Gazette’s Political Biases), I’m confident that if there was a will, there would be a way.