The Ideology of Education News

Lying in bed one rainy morning, I went down a rabbit hole. I had some time off from childcare and saw a tweet by Chad Aldeman critiquing an Economic Policy Institute statistic about teacher wages. Erstwhile Bruce Baker, who you should read and follow, responded with his characteristic depth by citing graphs, statistics, and all kinds of other technical details to argue against the claim.

Given his focus on these technical details (which are super important) one thing that Baker sometimes leaves out is the ideological terrain of education finance. We don’t live in a smooth world of technical calculation and rationality. It’s a messy world with power and dominance and struggle. Looking at Aldeman’s tweet from that point of view gets you a totally different kind of response.

That’s the response I was after. I wanted to follow the money behind these claims: Who is Aldeman writing for, where does the money flow there? Who is he connected to? Who do these claims serve? I found some interesting stuff.

Capital’s ‘reformers’ hang on

Aldeman published his piece on Eduwonk. They have an interesting blog where you can find out about esoteric stuff in education finance. I follow them. But you have to keep in mind who’s backing them: Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether is a project that comes out of Andrew Rotherham’s work. Rotherham is an education journalist and intellectual who served in Bill Clinton’s administration. He’s a longtime moderate Democrat pushing education ‘reform’ as the solution to education inequity. Reform in this case refers to marketization efforts like school choice, coupled with overbearing high-stakes testing and accountability.

Bellwether continues this tired tradition, as Ed Fuller notes in an review of recent research reports they’ve published. The dream of the 1990s lives on at Bellwether, which has a huge staff and whose leadership is well-paid. They come from such illustrious ruling class places as Bain Capital and Deloitte.

One reason to watch out for these kinds of connections is that they are the basis for networks that produce all kinds of news about education, particularly as traditional news outlets ignore education as a beat. One case is the glossy education new source The 74.

‘Non-partisan’

With its slick design and focus on diversity, racial justice, and equity, you might think The 74 is your friend. It says it’s a ‘non-partisan‘ news source for education. But a quick glance under the hood tells a different story. Founded by a CNN correspondent and an education advisor from Michael Bloomberg’s years as New York City mayor, the site takes money from the Waltons and the DeVos’s.

Rotherham is a regular contributer to the 74. I note this because Eduwonk and The 74 connect, even if weakly, through Rotherham and the Bellwether apparatus. These forces are powerful, have lots of cash, and can influence education policy through analyses like Aldeman’s.

Thankfully, it’s not clear that if these networks are super influential in the Biden administration, at least compared to previous leadership. Cardona and his people have some other voices in the mix (as evidenced by their citation of EPI, which is much more labor-friendly and way less neoliberal).

Front groups for front groups

We should keep these kinds of connections in mind with other education news outlets. A few that I’ve seen around are Education Next, EdWeek, and Education Post.

EdNext is a project out of Harvard University, edited by Professor Martin R. West. Like most ideologically neoliberal sources, EdNext claims to be free of ideology. But SourceWatch says that the venue is yet another pro-market ‘reform’ laundering outfit with connections to the Koret Task Force of the Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institute. Their info is old though, most of the board is different. But Eric “don’t give public education more money” Hanushek is on the editorial board, which should raise an eyebrow.

EdWeek is different, so far as I can tell. Their history is more journalistic. They’re run by Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit that created the Chronicle of Higher Education in the late 1960s and then sold the publication to its editors. While they get a ton of funding from all the foundations you’d rather not see (Gates, Chan-Zuckerberg, Carnegie) they also get money from some ‘better’ foundations (NoVo, Ford) and so many others that it’s hard to say they’re repping one kind of view. I also like that they have a whole section on how money obviously influences things, but they are trying their best not to let it rather than claiming no ideology.

Their CEO is a graduate of George Mason University (eek) but their managing director has a long career in journalism, policy, and research. Derek Black writes for them and I generally like his stuff. All in all, I’d recommend EdWeek above the other venues in this post.

Finally, Education Post pushes a lot of diversity talk. But like The 74, a peek under the hood reveals the interests at the heart of it. They’re run by BrightBeam which, according to its “About” page, in a strange little paragraph the very bottom of the page in italics, we find out is itself a front organization for another group.

Brightbeam is the operating name of Results in Education Foundation, a nonprofit private operating foundation under code 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. We’re grateful to our funders, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the City Fund, for helping support the work of dozens of advocates, activists and contributors all across the country.

We’ve seen that these same five or six foundations give money to pretty much every ‘education news’ source I’ve covered here. What I don’t like about this Education Post-Brightbeam thing is that the there’s a front group for a front group. Brightbeam is “the operating name” for Results in Education Foundation, whose executive director is Peter Cunningham, a former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in Barack Obama’s Department of Education. (Which makes sense: Arne Duncan is on Education Post-Brightbeam’s board of directors.)

Follow the power bloc

I started this post with the cover of Sarah Reckhow’s 2012 book Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics. You should read her account to get a deeper sense of the history behind these foundations that change education politics. One of the ways they do this is creating ‘news’ websites that advance their ideological position through analysis, reporting, and research.

But one thing I found in this little romp is that, while the money goes back to the same places, there’s a difference in power blocs running these websites. The Clintonite bloc in the Democratic Party, for instance, is different than the Obama bloc. Ther former is more associated with Eduwonk/The 74 while the latter goes with Education Post. These two blocs coming out of presidential administrations are different than the policy/think-tank institutions like Hoover and Harvard behind EdNext, which are distinct from the reporting focus of EdWeek.

So we have to follow the power bloc as well. The money behind most of these news sources ultimately wants market ‘reforms’ that favor capital. But the apparatchiks making those policies move are distinct.

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