Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Press and School Reform

Former H-L Editor, John Sawyer Carroll
Compelling examples exist demonstrating the power of the Press to spur the public to action including action to reform the public schools.  Reform in education seems to occur when a general philosophy of education meets practical public opinion and forms a powerful force for change.  Perhaps the best early example of this occurred in 1892, when Walter Hines Paige was editor of The Forum.  Paige sent reporter Joseph Rice on a month-long school appraisal expedition.  The subsequent articles in The Forum galvanized many strands of protest that were being heard throughout the country into one strong voice advocating reform in the school.  Paige’s decision launched a movement toward progressive education that spread across the nation and dominated the first half of the 20th century.

Just as with the progressive education movement, education reform in Kentucky was the product of a public policy campaign supported strongly by the editorial position of the Press.  For the Lexington Herald-Leader, that position was established by then Editor, John Sawyer Carroll.  John Carroll assumed the editorship of the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1979, having been recruited by then Publisher, Creed Black. Black had known Carroll when they both worked for the Philadelphia Enquirer.  Carroll came to Lexington with two aims: 1) making the paper more professional, and 2) capturing half of the state market from the Louisville Courier Journal.  As the Herald-Leader Editor he personally decided that school reform in Kentucky would be the paper’s foremost issue.


As Carroll recalled,
Back in 1983, when I was still getting my feet on the ground as far as trying to grasp Kentucky issues, we read about Governor Winter, down in Mississippi, who was campaigning for reforming the schools down there.  It was a very dramatic thing he was doing and he was very successful in mobilizing people and getting the legislature to do that.

Over the years, Kentucky and Mississippi had very often been vying for ‘last’ on the list of public school systems in the country, by various measurements.  And one refrain from Kentucky educators was often ‘Thank god for Mississippi,’ because Mississippi would come in 50th and we’d come in 49th  Now, here was Mississippi trying to do something about it and Kentucky’s still stuck in the mud.  So, I personally decided at the time that that should be our foremost issue – that Kentucky is just not going anywhere without better schools. 

But Carroll did not make his choice in a vacuum. He studiously read and talked to many people on the subject.  Significantly, he also developed a close friendship with Edward Prichard, another of Kentucky’s strongest advocates for education reform.  According to Carroll, the paper developed a clear strategy, which it followed over the years. 

I think that all together we have been a voice for better schools for a long time.  That’s certainly been our intent – to raise that issue, and cover the living hell out of it, in a news sense, and to provide commentary that will get people talking and thinking about it…

I’m somewhat proud of this.  …I don’t always write editorials and columns that I feel proud to read seven years later, but I wrote one on Governor [John Y.] Brown ignoring the schools versus Governor Winter who’s doing something down in Mississippi.  And I concluded…’the need for better schools is a message so true and so powerful that if it reaches all of the voters of Kentucky, no one in public life will dare stand in its way...’

I wrote this in ’83…and I later came to doubt it.  I really came to doubt that…the Kentucky body politic cared that much about schools or children or anything else - and would never do anything to shake itself free of the bonds of ignorance.

The contemporaneous emergence of the Prichard Committee as a group focused on elementary and secondary education provided assistance to the Council for Better Education (which was just beginning to toy with the idea of a lawsuit)  that it would not have likely developed on its own.  Seemingly, every time the Council said, ‘We need equity,’ the Prichard Committee would say, ‘Kentucky needs better schools.’  The two groups coexisted in a symbiotic fashion providing an effective one - two punch that gave material to the Press and helped fuel public interest.  

Much of the Prichard Committee’s objective was to garner the support of Kentucky’s newspapers.  In fact, Robert Sexton had systematically approached each of the major papers.  Sexton acknowledged,
“[T]he Herald-Leader and the Courier had…done big education stories before we even got created.  We were talking to them behind the scenes about these stories before we even established ourselves.”
Like the Prichard Committee, the Press, after the Rose case redirected its editorial position from the advocacy for reform to the maintenance of that reform.  The path chosen by Lexington Herald-Leader Editor, John Carroll was to look for a way to support public school reform.  He wanted something that was direct and got at the heart of what was arguably Kentucky’s most pressing problem - a lively local patronage system that served the interests of persons in positions of authority, but contributed little to the support its public schools.  The political interests in some cases appeared significant enough that other interests, such as the education of Kentucky’s children, was somewhere down the list of priorities.  This would seem to have occurred with far too many supposed stewards of the public trust.  According to Carroll,   
[W]e knew that there was a lot of corruption in the tax system.  And we knew that there was a lot of nepotism.  You know, most people who’d studied schools knew that stuff was going on.  When the state Supreme Court, in 1989, declared the school system unconstitutional we decided that, you know, this was a climactic period.  And we’re a newspaper that had taken some pride in its education coverage.  That’s our foremost goal – to do that right…

Moreover, Carroll did not think that school reform was out of the woods as far as funding was concerned.  The General Assembly had shown repeatedly that passing a bill and funding it were two different things.  Carroll thought about the issues surrounding reform looking for a way to influence the General Assembly and the citizens at large that the reform movement deserved their support.  At the same time, Carroll was very concerned that many eastern Kentuckians might be so accepting of political corruption that they could not be moved to action.  In Carroll’s opinion, 
“…the people out in the state were very reluctant to support any more money for education as long as they knew that their local school people were doing the things they were doing – not collecting the taxes fairly, appointing their friends to school jobs, basically manipulating the schools to keep themselves in power…There’s a political tradition there that makes it acceptable to use the schools for your own personal profit.”  Carroll “had come to doubt whether the average citizen in Kentucky gave a damn about what happened to his kids in school.”   
 He finally settled on an approach that would help repair serious flaws in the tax system and also got at the heart of the people’s distrust of the system.  He recalled,

We floundered around for a while, but we decided…that we would concentrate on the local political control of the schools and the toll that takes, not only in dollars, but in faith.  People don’t have faith in the school system’s ability to absorb more dollars effectively as long as political hacks at the local level are in charge. We felt that was an essential issue…to getting the Legislature and the Governor to support more money for the schools and to getting the public to support more money. …It was an ugly subject, but it was like a boil.  It had to be lanced before people would be willing to go forward with anything very ambitious for the schools. 

Then Carroll had to decide how he was going to approach the treatment of the topic.  He might have relegated it to the editorial pages, or had a few reporters do a series.  But he believed that the average person on the street would have a hard time relating to a typical education series.  Instead, he chose a full-court press.  According to Carroll,

The more we learned, the more we realized that it truly was an outrage the way the local school systems were being milked by local politicians.  Whether through the taxes or…padding the payrolls with their relatives or driving off teachers who were on the wrong side of the fence politically, the level of intimidation in some of those small towns was shocking.  And we thought it was truly a story about an outrage and we handled it that way.  We didn’t pull any punches.  We didn’t write it like something you would read in a scholarly book.  I mean, you don’t have to read…more than four or five paragraphs before you hit the next outrage in that story.  We packed it tightly with outrages.  We thought that was appropriate.  We didn’t think that was yellow journalism. We thought it was definitely called for.

The result was a twelve-part series of stories that ran from November 12 through December 15, 1989 utilizing nine reporters and support staff.  Collectively they describe tax giveaways, payroll padding, the persecution of teachers, nepotism, and many other affronts to good government and good education.  The articles were principally written by Kit Wagar, Lee Mueller, Bob Geiger, Bill Estep, Jack Brammer, John Winn Miller, Jamie Lucke, Mary Ann Roser and Valarie Honeycutt.  The public response was huge.  As Herald-Leader Editor, John Carroll recalled, 

I feel like we got an extremely strong reaction to this story – stronger than anything I’ve seen…We’ve had over 1,800 letters, which is a multiple of the letters we’ve had on anything else…virtually all of them, favorable to the paper, thanking us for doing it. And so many of them coming from what I call real people out there in little towns - the kind of people we don’t hear from very often.  It was a wonderfully rewarding thing to do.  You know…an editor suffers a lot of slings and arrows for the things he publishes.  But I’ll tell you I was coming in – typical day for a while - with 50, 60, 70, 80 letters on my desk, all of them telling me what a great guy I was.  It certainly boosted my spirits.  I think that series really stirred people.  We distributed massive numbers of reprints – about 100,000 reprints…Seven other Kentucky newspapers distributed them, and bought them from us and inserted them in their papers… All I know is that this story really grabbed people in a way that even I am amazed at. 

Carroll believed the paper’s efforts helped push the legislature toward the passage of reform.  He recalled that there “was a tremendous political force generated.”  The paper published the names and addresses of all of the state legislators, and in Carroll’s view the citizens of Kentucky were not just writing to the paper.

I’m sure the mail was pouring in…and it was reflected in the debate in the General Assembly.  The phrase ‘cheating our children’ was used over and over again in the various hearings.  Just routinely they’d say, ‘Well, we can’t cheat our children any longer.’  And, much of the reform bill, or a good part of it, addresse[d] those problems that were discussed in our series.  I think that was a political price that had to be paid.  In order to pump more money into it you had to clean it up. 

Even after passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act, Carroll remained cautious.  Like many of Kentucky’s educational leaders, he thought much could still go wrong and that greatest amount of effort was yet to come.

This is such a sea change in educational policy in Kentucky that its implementation will be as difficult as achieving the legislation… I think it will be as difficult to implement it in a way that it really does what its intended to do for the state, as it was to get it in the first place.  And you know it was a Herculean effort to get it in the first place.  And I think the paper’s foremost duty is to follow up and focus on these things and make sure that …they’re done properly… basically just to keep a very bright spotlight on what’s going on…  

See; Richard E. Day. "Each Child, Every Child: The Story of the Council for Better Education, Equity, and Adequacy in Kentucky Schools" Printed by the Council for Better Education Jan. 2003. (2003), 225-228.

Video of John Carroll from the Herald Leader. 

This from the Herald-Leader:

A quarter of a century ago, "inadequate" was a kind description for many schools in Kentucky.
School districts relied heavily on local property taxes for funding, which meant children in poor counties with small property-tax bases sometimes sold candy or magazines to help keep the lights on at school.
But a 1989 investigation by the Herald-Leader showed that many local officials compounded school-funding problems by refusing to tax residents more than the bare minimum, by not properly assessing the value of all property — thereby eroding the tax base — and by doing a poor job collecting taxes. More than 10 percent of property owners in some counties skipped paying year after year.
The state's school system was at a crossroads that year because the state Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional. The high court said the gap between what wealthy and poor districts spent to teach students was so wide that many children were being deprived of an equal chance for an adequate education.
The worst example shown during the Rose trial was the 8:1 ratio between funding for students in Fayette County compared to per pupil spending for students in Whitley County.
In spring 1990, the Kentucky Education Reform Act and companion bills upended how schools were funded, governed and held accountable. New laws also required better assessments of property values and gave the state more leverage to push for improved tax collections.
There has since been significant progress in education in Kentucky, which is no longer at the back of the pack in student achievement. Its school buildings have been largely modernized, teacher pay is better and political interference in hiring has been curbed.
But 25 years on, some communities and their elected officials — school boards, sheriffs, property valuation administrators and county attorneys — still aren't doing all they could to provide funding for local schools, a new Herald-Leader investigation found.
In a three-part series that [began] Sunday, the newspaper found that some of the state's poorest counties still don't assess property at its true value, and thousands of property owners continue to shirk their tax bills. In addition, many school boards have shied away from tax increases that would have helped offset stagnant state funding for the program designed to equalize education spending across Kentucky.
What that means is lost opportunities to boost local support of schools, even as the promise of equity and adequacy for every student in Kentucky remains unfulfilled.

More on Shortchanging Our Schools


Anonymous said...

Talk about an institution resting on past laurels!

IMO the staff of the Herald Leader has not done any investigative reporting of substance on the topic of FCPS since Lisa Deffendall became FCPS spindoctor.

Richard, is it correct that Lisa Deffendall was previously a Herald Leader reporter for education?

M Winkler

Anonymous said...

I read the story. Not surprising. And yet each year more is asked of teachers in every district --- well funded or not. Kentucky has always flirted with unrealistic expectations from its schools at all levels. Remember Lee Todd and his wish for Top 20 status for UK.? Under assessed property will never help the schools get where they need to be, but I predict, after the outcry, little will be done.

Plain and simple: Kentucky is a backward state whose citizens like to hear ieducational leaders engage in lofty rhetoric about the power of education. In the end, though, the rhetoric about good schools is little more than rhetoric.

Blue Suede Shoes said...

You ignore history in your comment oh anonymous one. We are fast approaching a time when expectations match performance. Under your logic, we should set lower standards so that we can give each other high fives and congratulate ourselves for meeting subpar standards. No thanks. There are excellent schools throughout KY. The key is crafting policy that sets the conditions for that excellence to scale out.

So what will it take to make that happen? Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves? What are the problems of practice? Let's articulate them so that we can propose meaningful solutions. It is easy to blame policy makers or leadership or any number of perceived villains. It is much more difficult to propose solutions for the problems and build consensus among shareholders. That is the work we must be about.

Anonymous said...

Dear Blue Suede Shoes,

I did not think invoking the name of Lee todd would result in the accusation that I ignore history. I do believe that our schools will ever have all children college and career ready without the support of parents, Please tell me how we solve that problem. WE DO HAVE SOME GOOD SCHOOLS IN THE COMMONWEALTH. Anchorage Independent Is one. Ever ask yourself why? Please propose a solution to the problem.....as this Is the work we must be about.

Anonymous said...

What does blue suede shoes mean when he says expectations must match performance. These hollow expressions scream out for clarification, does she or he work for The department of education..lol

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Winkler,

Lisa Defendall did indeed a former H L reporter. According to my records, she was hired by education reformer Dr. Stu Silberman of the respected Prichard Committee.

Richard Day said...


Yes, Lisa reported for the Herald-Leader for several years, and it has been interesting for me to switch roles with her..to a degree. As a principal, I shared information with her on several occasions and thought she did a good job of reporting facts. She has had ups and downs in her current position.

Love him or hate him, I thought Stu Silberman did an effective job of dealing with the press. He appeared to be forthcoming, most of the time, he knocked Lisa down a peg when he thought it necessary, and only lawyered up when actual law suits were in progress.

In my opinion, Lisa has been much less forthcoming during more recent administrations, and disappointingly, she and Superintendent Marlene Helm did not even respond to my request for a comment regarding the recent flap over an FCPS staffer's charge of racism against her boss.

That said, I do not attribute H-L's decline in investigative reporting to the loss of Lisa, so much as a more generalized decline in the number of reporters overall. Nine reporters completed 12 part series in 1989. In 2015, it's a three-part series written by one reporter.

February 19, 2015 at 6:36 AM:

Fewer teachers being asked to perform at higher levels sounds a bit like what has happened to America's newspapers too. Granted, the work is very different, and I do not feel sorrier for reporters than teachers.

Todd did what most politicians do...promise big results but set the date of accountability well into the future. 2014 has come and gone. The legislature has attempted to outlaw achievement gaps, and yet, poverty and its effects persist. Will a 2020 plan really solve our problems or just kick the can down the road? It did not escape me that Capiluto's first order of business was to rewrite UK's Top 20 plan. Poof. All gone.

Unless a critical mass of the population is engaged in the push for better schools, we can expect the legislature to shortchange the schools, allow retirement plan promises to go unfulfilled, while our 20th century tax code prevents the state from keeping pace. But a riled up citizenry can change that in a hurry.

Blue Suede Shoes:

You wrote: "We are fast approaching a time when expectations match performance." I simply don't see any evidence to support that statement. It sounds like you believe in magic. In my studied opinion, there is no magic program that will save policy makers. If you think otherwise, let's hear it. What program(s) will raise achievement and close achievement gaps? The legislature has earned the blame, due to the fact that it is solely responsible for the schools, and yet it has neglected the needs of the average public school citizen, one supposes, in favor of the interests of rich donors.

February 19, 2015 at 7:13 PM:

Anchorage? Really?

Well, it's simple then. All we need is for every Kentucky child to be born to a rich family.

I do agree that we have many good schools in Kentucky, but my definition may be a tad different from yours. I look for schools that outperform their expectations through solid hard work (not cheating on tests). I have seen data that suggest some of our top performing schools fail to add much value to the kids they serve. When one adjusts for poverty, schools in southeastern Kentucky tend to look a bit better than usual.

Anonymous said...

Since the inevitable defense of Silberman came up, let me remind readers that stu Silberman suspended a prominent black educator for no reason and then fired her for conduct unbecoming a teacher. The state Supreme Court then ruled in Rosalind Hurley Richards defense. He was a brutal tyrant, he destroyed lived through his actions and would throw teachers under the bus when he felt it necessary. He did nothing to I,prove the lives of gay students in or district. Although I have often been baffled by his attendance at the Methodist church, he really tried to play up the religious crowd and at one hitler like rally he even invoked the name of Jesus in a bizarre closing ceremony. Stu was as close to Michelle Rhee as we have ever seen. His appointments from michael Ernst downward were horrible. His treTment of brenda Allen and other truth tellers was a shame. I am so glad one chapter has closed.