This post, the fourth in Townsend’s series about segregation in Florida schools, is huge, but he’s covering a lot of ground, including blatant segregation and the work of a prize-winning newspaper. Reposted with permission.
Today’s Part 4 is a comprehensive history and accounting of the consequences from Florida’s two most important pieces of newspaper journalism since 2015. Both concern education; and both illustrate how power determines the impact of journalism, in different ways. This article may be truncated in email delivery; so you should plan to click through to the website.
It would take a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, to which I am a subscriber, a couple of days at most to go through the Step Up for Students website and compile a spreadsheet of voucher schools for the counties in their coverage area — with the same information I put together in this spreadsheet. (I will send you the full sheet if you want it, TBT, for a template.)
Florida is bad. Write the story.
It would take the Tampa Bay Times almost no time to read the Urban Institute study about the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) voucher program that pays these awful voucher “public schools.”
It would be easy to report that FTC has a 35 percent 1-year drop out rate; 61 percent 2-year drop out rate; and a 75 percent 3-year drop out rate. It’s right here, folks. Here’s the key image:
After pushing the “Learn More” button, reporters could easily navigate to the interactive Florida map and report that Jeb Crow Florida has the worst “learning rate” per year of any state in the country — based on our own state tests.
The Tampa Bay Times could then double check that rate question against the NAEP, which is a different kind of test, but which has shown a post-4th grade collapse by all Florida kids of all kinds in all NAEP subject since at least 2003.
With a little more time, The Tampa Bay Times could ask, for the benefit of its readers, why?
Why does Florida have terrible test score “learning rates,” when all it does is chase test scores? Why does Florida have high-drop-out rate, low-capital voucher segregation factories at such scale? Do all of these realities interact? Do they depend on one another?
Is Jeb Crow education a compounding disaster for everyone — but especially children who lack capital or have special needs?
Why is Florida bad? Why is Florida a Failure Factory?
A Pulitzer for a botched tagline that malicious bipartisan power used to strip mine the human capacity of Florida’s public education system
These easy to execute stories about the very foundation of Florida’s failed state education governance and leadership model should concern and interest the Tampa Bay Times — considering its recent history.
As referenced above, in 2015, the Tampa Bay Times published a report about traditional public school segregation in five Pinellas County schools that would win the Pulitzer Prize. (Pinellas County is the St. Petersburg part of the Tampa Bay Area for any national readers unfamiliar with the geography.) Here is how the Times summarized it — and still summarizes it on its website:
In Dec. 18, 2007, the Pinellas County School Board abandoned integration. They justified the vote with bold promises: Schools in poor, black neighborhoods would get more money, more staff, more resources. They delivered none of that.
This is the story of how district leaders turned five once-average schools into Failure Factories.
That last line is crucial because the last two words gave the total package its epochal tagline/title, which completely obscures the point about integration. An accurate sentence would have read: “This is the story of how district leaders turned five once-average schools into Segregation Factories.”
Changing one word would have changed the entire recent history of education and the state of Florida — and to great extent the entire country.
It’s the most consequential single word choice error I have ever seen in journalism of any kind. And it’s the reason I’ve chosen the name I have for this series.
I do not believe the Tampa Bay Times — either the institution or the individual reporters — has ever publicly reckoned with what its Pulitzer-shrouded meek acquiescence to power did to human beings all over the state of Florida. Consider this article a long overdue history and human accounting.
“Schools without Rules” — or any attention from power
In 2019, the Orlando Sentinel, to which I also subscribe, published an equally well-reported, much further-reaching, and accurately-labeled package of reporting focused on Florida’s shit show voucher school provider network — which serves 175,000 kids and costs more than a $1 billion per year.
Escaping high-stakes testing is such a scholarship selling point that one private school administrator refers to students as “testing refugees.”
Thus, we see how the lived human experience of Jeb Crow-style testing and consequences is the connective tissue between “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules” — as is low capital segregation. These two monster investigations focused on the same state system — not parallel, localized toxic universes unrelated to each other.
Reducing children to fake data to sort for money produces “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules” — by design. Everything we fight about in education is symptom to that disease. “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules,” in the real world of the Florida Model, aren’t competing as schools or journalism; they’re co-dependent.
They are the shared face of Jeb Crow Florida in 2021.
Two reports. Two realities. One Jeb Crow system of education, power, and media.
If only the two investigations — one in 2015 and one in 2019 — had realized that and communicated with each other, power might not have been able to behave as differently toward both as it did.
Cross partisan power weaponized the “Failure Factories” tagline — not the segregation reporting — to actively hurt everyone affiliated in any way with traditional public schools in Florida. That’s hundreds of thousands — probably millions — of individual human beings, from child to adult.
“Failure Factories” is, without question, the most humanity-destroying Pulitzer Prize ever won by any reporters or institution. And America’s Democratic Party education officials — both of Barack Obama’s education secretaries — eagerly swooped down to join in the fun of using Pinellas County segregation to dismantle public school capacity across Florida — and the country, to a lesser extent.
By contrast, these same government and education powers completely ignored the Sentinel’s reporting and tagline, with one exception — discrimination against LGBT children by religious voucher schools.
In response to the LGBT criticism, Florida education power used its longstanding playbook of pitting vulnerable people against each other — in this case LGBT and racial minorities — to make sure the voucher network gets to keep grifting all kids and parents with impunity. And Ron DeSantis still considers voucher schools, like this one in Lakeland, to be “public” schools.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series provide much more detail about Florida’s $1 billion plus voucher griftopia, which is funded entirely by money diverted from your real public schools, in one way or another.
Those articles also make clear that I don’t even “oppose” vouchers as a concept. I oppose grifting and harm and garbage schools. Doug Tuthill and legislators could fix that with a finger snap with just these common sense changes and standards for providers:
Require accreditation by the same organization that accredits schools like All Saints and Lakeland Christian
Require a meaningful capital/endowment-to-operations threshold
Subject voucher school recipients to the same model of oversight that the Early Learning Coalition provides for state-funded Pre-K providers.
Require that voucher schools take the same tests public schools take — however many or however few.
Those common sense changes would also destroy at least 85 percent of voucher schools and cost powerful people a lot of money. That is why they will not happen unless some politician runs hard on them.
That fact also explains much about the “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules” investigations — and their radically different aftermaths and consequences. Together, “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules” explain much about the recent history of education, journalism, and power in Florida.
It’s all the same dark story.
A gift to segregationists like Richard Corcoran
The Florida state education system did nothing, of course, to combat segregation in response to “Failure Factories.” It far worsened it, instead, intentionally, as its complete long-standing indifference to rancid, low capital voucher segregation of children of color and children with disabilities shows.
And no “leader” suffered in any significant way for the segregation sins of Pinellas County. By contrast, thousands of teachers and perhaps millions of kids all over Florida suffered from Richard Corcoran’s ongoing weaponization of the TBT’s “Failure Factories” tagline. This is just from a cursory Google search.
Segregation? What segregation?
For me, the saddest part about “Failure Factories,” upon re-reading, is how unhostile it actually is toward public education and teachers as a whole. It does not blame “unions” or the other usual suspects; it blames “leaders” and “segregation.” I could have written it. For instance:
It is quite sympathetic to the teachers who worked in those schools — quite sympathetic to all the the people associated with those schools trying to make the schools work. It’s not a teacher-hating grifter package of reporting.
It’s a LOCAL story — about Pinellas County only. Local. Local. Local. Local. It is self-consciously local. Self-aware about its localness and the uniqueness of Pinellas. It repeatedly contrasts Pinellas with other individual districts. It is singling Pinellas out; it draws NO statewide or nationwide conclusions. Zero. It even implicitly rejects the comments of a Pinellas board member who referred to the struggles of those five schools as “national issue.”
It reserves its true ire and moral contempt for the elected School Board of Pinellas County. I’m on record saying that state government has long provided local school board members with an implicit bribe: “Here’s $40K and health insurance. Now, show up to a few meetings; do some graduations; and quietly, passively, absorb all the blame for unelected staff and distant Tallahassee who run things.” They certainly did that in this case. So you will not hear me defend the 2008-2015 Pinellas County School Board from the “Failure Factories” fixture of blame upon it.
At that time, anyone who has spent any time in and around elected school boards in Florida’s unelected state and staff-dominated education system knows it is laughable to see local elected School Boards as the prime actors in education policy.
That’s not because board members are virtuous — but because they’re almost entirely powerless if they don’t use the bully pulpit, which very few do. (I did — and was hated for it by “leaders.”)
“Failure Factories” is obtusely blinkered about power, money, and capacity — who has it, where it dwells, what it requires. “Failure Factories” is breathtakingly (probably willfully) naive about how little state power in Florida (which is Republican power) cares about “segregation” or the children in those schools.
There are definitely local wrinkles to the Pinellas reality; but like every other district, it functions not as the Pinellas independent school district, but as the Pinellas division of the Florida state school system.
School boards can’t even set their own tax rates or budgets. (The votes are all state-determined formalities, with minor variances if there is local tax referenda money to spend.) De-seg orders were and are crumbling all over the country (including in Polk); and 2008 was the Great Recession, from which school funding has still not recovered — by state design.
I suspect the elected Pinellas board members just did what their unelected staff and legal dictated to them. This is what elected board members do and are coached to do by the Florida School Board Association. (I know this firsthand; been to the conferences. “Stay in your lannnnneeeeee….,” they tell you endlessly.) And then they seem to have stood by impotently and quietly and ignorantly as segregation does what it tends to do.
But these board members were not the master planners of misery — just the well-compensated-per-hour absorbers of visceral blame that actual power pays for exactlythat purpose.
Millenia of loss — in Polk alone — from the “Failure Factories” teacher transfers
As a newly elected School Board member in Polk County from 2016-2020, I personally had to reckon with Corcoran’s weaponization of Pinellas County segregation and the “Failure Factories” tagline in the zoned Polk County schools that serve our kids with the least personal capital.
Not one state edict in the barrage of school-killing artillery had a damn thing to do with “segregation” or “integration.” Indeed, these low capital schools were generally Polk’s most integrated schools.
Empowered by “Failure Factories,” Corcoran and the state government used the so-called value-added model (VAM) equation to force incredibly disruptive teacher transfers at the beginning of school years. VAM is an awful Democratic Party idea discredited basically everywhere else but Florida long ago, whose Republican leaders love to deploy the stupidest and most destructive Democratic ideas to hurt public education. VAM gives a teacher a “score” using garbage test data milled through this ridiculous equation:
“These subs cannot help us the way our teachers can.”
Punitive, “Failure Factories” VAM transfers happened on and off throughout my term. The following year, forced transfers after the school year began led to this scene.
These are early teen and pre-teen middle school children at a low-to-moderate income zoned school sobbing — SOBBING — at a public School Board meeting because of losing a teacher they loved to a state-VAM-ordered “Failure Factories” transfers.
I watched this — felt this — happen live from the dais. I was about six feet from these girls.
“Failure Factories” forced teacher transfers are ironic because “Failure Factories” wrote extensively about the disruptive harmfulness of teacher turnover in its stories. Turnover was a “chronic problem” in the FF schools. Key finding:
Teacher turnover is a chronic problem, leaving some children to cycle through a dozen instructors in a single year. In 2014, more than half of the teachers in these schools asked for a transfer out.
The “Failure Factory-”inspired teacher turnover was directed by the state — all over the state. It decimated schools in Polk County and elsewhere that serve low capital neighborhoods. Lots of teachers just bailed on the profession entirely. I recall hearing no peep of an objection from the celebrated Pulitzer winners when I wrote this and shouted about it as an elected official as loud as I damn well could.
Through the first six months or so of this year, Polk’s five “turnaround” middle schools combined had suffered at least 2,617 days of teacher vacancies. That means an active class for which no permanent certified or provisional teacher was in place. 2,617 days. If you multiply that by the 125 or so kids each teacher touches, you get about 327,000 days. Divide that by the 180 days of a school year, and it gives you more than 1800 years. Almost two millennia of loss.
It’s absurd to even try to evaluate schools operating under that kind of state-sponsored sabotage. But mark my words, the state will rig the fraudulent school grades to go up this time. School grades are always, always, always fraudulent political tools determined by political votes and manipulation of cut scores and bell curves. Your legislators and school officials will jack up grades to avoid any responsibility for their actions and set themselves up for elections in 2018.
They did just that, by the way: “Jack up grades.” Any cursory historical review of Florida school/district grades en masse on a color-coded spreadsheet makes it brutally clear that the state engineers school grades to go one direction or the other, depending on what’s most politically useful in any given year. School grades are fraud — always have been and always will be. See this article and color-coded spreadsheet.
“Learning loss” factories
You’re hearing a lot about bullshit test score loss these days — otherwise known as “learning loss” — because of COVID disruption. (Again these same “learning loss” people completely ignore Florida’s appalling, long-standing “learning rate” compared to the rest of America.)
But if “learning loss” exists as a concept, it’s the entire legacy of “Failure Factories.”
And every single “learning loss” chatterbox today reacted with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to the sobbing children and lost instruction of the Failure Factories teacher transfers and purges of 2016-2019. And that’s the entire legacy “Failure Factories” — loss. Asked to sum up “Failure Factories,” here’s what I would say:
It’s a mislabeled Pulitzer-winning package about the evils of segregation that segregationist power gleefully appropriated (with no resistance from the misrepresented journalists) to make segregation much worse, while killing Florida’s public education capacity for everyone and directly harming thousands and thousands of humans across the state. At all times, this process received tut-tut golf claps from the entire cross-partisan American education establishment.
It is impossible to say that in a nice way.
If I could say it nicely, I might have a better relationship with one of the prime “Failure Factories” authors — and with the wider world of education “reform.”
I would actually like that because, frankly, we need them. We need sincere “liberal reformers” or “moral reformers” to be better if we’re going to save public education. I don’t know if they have it in them; but I hope so. I’ll explore that unfortunate reality a bit in part 5, the final “Segregation Factories” installment.
“Schools without Rules” and the “testing refugees”
There is less to write about the impact and legacy of “Schools without Rules” because it didn’t win any Pulitzers or produce any real legacy — at least not yet. I’m trying to change that, in my futile way.
As I wrote earlier, when I extrapolate statewide, I get roughly 23,500 of Florida’s black children test-herded into segregated, no accreditation, no capital voucher schools with a 61 percent 2-year program dropout rate.
That’s at least 10X more kids, distributed far more widely across the state, than the few hundred in Pinellas County covered by “Failure Factories.”
Kids are not tested in these voucher schools, for multiple intentional reasons, so you can’t even compare them to the public schools on the state’s stupid and corrupt measures.
But thanks to “Schools without Rules,” we know that voucher schools and programs aggressively market escape from the stress and consequences of standardized testing mandated in real public schools. This is particularly true of Florida’s test-driven, mass 3rd grade retention, which is state-sanctioned, organized child abuse committed for the sake of gaming the 4th grade NAEP.
Most of those voucher kids (75 percent-ish) will drift back to public schools within 2 or 3 years, grifted and “behind” on testing. At that point, their test scores will be weaponized again against the public schools that took them back. It’s quite a cycle.
Yet, power expressed no peep of interest in the ghastly quality and oversight of voucher schools that the Sentinel meticulously documented (up to and including serial sexual abuse) — which affects exponentially more kids and money than the Pinellas “Failure Factory” schools.
A number of these unsupervised voucher schools are/were also “molestation factories,” with their leaders arrested for criminal sexual abuse.
Powerful people of all political types — yes, Democrats, too — ignored all of that. All of it. All. of. it.
Corporations will react to LGBT discrimination; but not a 61 percent dropout rate program that grifts almost everybody
“Schools without Rules” did generate powerful interest in how religious voucher schools discriminate against LGBT kids. That got the attention of corporate donors, some of whom cut funding.
That is a lesson in the growing power of the LGBT community, especially in corporate America. It’s one of the most remarkable and welcome developments of the last 20 years. Open LGBT discrimination runs you afoul of corporate power today.
By contrast, open mass grifting, no-capital segregation of all types of vulnerable children, and no systemic oversight of schools with patterns of sexual abuse, does notrun you afoul of corporate power or even Democrats.
I suspect that’s because the Jeb Bush wing of the Democratic Party cannot publicly criticize their great teacher-hating ally and patron, Jeb Bush. (More on that in the finale of this series.) Arne Duncan can’t attack Florida — or be honest about it — because that means attacking Jeb. And attacking Jeb means attacking Barack Obama.
That leaves us with this national education policy spectacle, which is the truest, craziest lesson of “School without Rules:”
Almost any child of any kind would be better off in real life if 85 percent of voucher schools discriminated against them — just based on basic quality and safety and fraudulence. That’s an astonishing sentence to write; but it’s deadly true. It’s why 75 percent of voucher kids abandon their voucher in three years.
Yet, NO national education “leader” with power will say a word about it. That is what power and impunity looks like. That’s what we’re up against. Do not delude yourself. It will not fix itself — because grift is a feature, not a bug.
There is no smug impunity like Tuthill smug impunity
Indeed, consider Doug Tuthill’s confidence in the complete impunity of his 61 percent 2-year/75 percent 3-year drop-out rate, segregated, no capital schools.
(For clarity, Tuthill’s 175,000 number is total voucher kids. Again, the 23,500-ish is my projection of only Florida’s highly voucher-segregated black children, based on Polk’s numbers.)
More than 175,000 of Florida’s most disadvantaged schoolchildren — two-thirds of whom are black or Hispanic and live barely above poverty — have applied to Step Up for Students for state-supported scholarships this fall to attend a public or private school they could not otherwise afford. Not one of them will celebrate Scott Maxwell’s attempts to make donors question their support of these scholarships.
Maxwell’s latest attack on a remarkably successful, 18-year-old scholarship serving underprivileged students ostensibly derives from a concern over potential discrimination against LGBTQ+ scholarship students in a small number of schools that express disapproval of homosexuality in their codes of conduct.
“Remarkably successful.” LOL. Of those 175,000 kids, 106,750 (61 percent) bailed on those scholarships because of the garbage schools within two years. 131,250 (75 percent) bailed within three years.
This is where it’s important and true to note that “Schools without Rules” did not actually dive into racial segregation the way I have — or the program drop out rates. My work builds atop the Sentinel’s.
But “Schools without Rules” did document — with none of the finger-wagging sanctimony of “Failure Factories” — the awfulness of the Florida voucher provider network and the vicious unresponsiveness of state voucher merchants to fraud and abuse.
I promise you, Doug Tuthill knows his own drop out rates. He knows 61 percent 2-year drop out rate/75 percent three-year drop out rate. He also knows this:
And he still brought the identity-based nonsense that any critic of Jeb Crow and Doug Tuthill is going to take — because he knew no one in power would challenge him, especially not federal Democratic education officials.
Indeed, if you embark seriously on the work of critiquing Florida’s Jeb Crow education system, you need to understand something and prepare yourself for it.
Anyone who questions the wisdom of test-forcing 23,500-ish black children into hideously segregated, unaccredited, no-capital voucher schools with a 61 percent 2-year program dropout rate is going to get called “privileged” or “racist.”
You will be called “racist” and “privileged” by powerful conservative white guys; the operators of the segregated grifter schools; and the Jeb Crow wing of the Democratic Party, which sets Democratic education direction and policy.
Trust me, I’ve experienced it personally. More on that in the last part, too.
To their eternal credit, the Sentinel reporters and editors did not back down an inch from this. They fought for the meaning and relevance of their story against a gale of both silence and bullshit from the same exact people who lionized “Failure Factories.”
So why did Failure Factories win a Pulitzer? Why did Schools without Rules win silence beyond LGBT kids?
Power loved loved loved the “Failure Factories” tagline. It did not bother with the actual reporting work.
Cross-partisan American power has, for many years, invested heavily in the idea that lazy and kinda racist people teaching the lazy ne’er-do-well kids who need Ivy League “grit” are responsible for American inequality of citizenship and capital.
This educational ideology is very convenient to the lifestyle and life choices of all-partisan American power, which has proven itself quite mediocre — at best — in that same time period.
We do not live in anything close to a meritocracy. Power, like money, is generally inherited in America. “Failure Factories” was like a deep body massage for lazy power — and its reporters were feted and rewarded for it — by lazy power.
Here’s a crucial example of that from heart of the “Schools without Rules” and “Failure Factories” non-nexus.
Listen to the fake moralism in Arne Duncan’s voice from December 2015, when he and John King — the dynamic duo of fake moralizing “corporate reform” and Democratic school capacity destruction — swooped down upon Pinellas County to grandstand about “Failure Factories.”
Standing in Campbell Park Elementary, Duncan said: “What has happened to too many kids, for too long, is unacceptable. It’s heartbreaking. Part of me wants to cry. Part of me gets very, very angry.”
See the article here. You’ll notice that the Times reporter has to paraphrase any Duncan or King reference to “segregation” or “integration.” Note the reporter’s use of the word “linked,” while neither word is put directly in either mouth of power.
“Race” and “most poorly served” are though.
Duncan linked the failing elementary schools to the Pinellas School Board’s decision eight years ago to abandon integration, saying that bad decisions and broken promises had a devastating effect. He said that it wasn’t a coincidence that “those who are most poorly served were black children who happened to be poor.”
“You can’t have this conversation and not talk about race,” he said.
The School Board’s decision was the focus of a Tampa Bay Times investigation, “Failure Factories,” which detailed how the district neglected five resegregated schools until they became some of the worst in Florida. The series also showed how violence had spiked in the schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — and how experienced teachers had fled as the classes before them became less and less diverse.
“Linked” is doing massive massive work in this passage to connect two unconnected concepts:
Weaponizing “race” to destroy public school capacity in the supposed name of equity.
Wrestling in good faith with low capital racial “segregation.”
Jeb Crow — and the Jeb Crow wing of the Democratic Party — is and was about the first thing — not the second thing. To this day, it cannot or will not internalize the idea that equity depends on capacity.
And it wouldn’t be long before the Times’ follow-up coverage entirely gave up even trying to “link” segregation to “Failure Factories” or its aftermath.
“Reform” power makes its priorities clear — and none of them is reducing segregation or building capacity
This moment, this grandstanding Duncan/King grandstand moment in 2015, might be the political power peak of “corporate reform.”
It embodies “reform” sanctimony and its fake moralism and its fake concerns about equity that result in nothing but pain and destruction of capital for little people. I seriously doubt Duncan and King even read the “Failure Factories” reporting. They only needed the tagline.
Indeed, the only difference I see between Richard Corcoran and Barack Obama’s education team is I know Richard Corcoran didn’t read the “Failure Factories” reporting; I only strongly suspect Arne Duncan and John King didn’t.
I confirmed with the Sentinel “Schools without Rules” reporters that no such visit came from any luminary of any party after it revealed the appalling state of Florida’s voucher “public schools.”
Obviously, Betsy DeVos wouldn’t come. But what about Duncan and John King, the face of Democratic Party education power in temporary exile — so so prone to anger about race and schooling? Could they manage a yawn?
Nope. Nothing. Neither of them could spare a tear then or now for kids on my spreadsheet, test-hustled into a 61-percent 2-year drop out rate program. It did not make Arne Duncan wail: Part of me wants to cry. Part of me gets very, very angry.
Arne Duncan and John King will be Ron DeSantis’ biggest education cheerleaders in 2024 — because of Jeb Crow
Of course, teachers and kids would bear the brunt of Arne Duncan’s crocodile tears, not “leaders.”
And Donald Trump was waiting — first to demolish Jeb Bush with Common Core and then suck up to him by appointing Betsy DeVos, and allowing her to reveal to the world just how much of an ally she is to Arne Duncan and John King.
Jeb Bush has long dictated Arne Duncan and John King and Barack Obama’s views and approach on education. Jeb Bush still dictates the entire institutional Democratic party’s capacity-killing approach to education because his lackey John King is staffing Biden’s DoE.
Arne Duncan and John King stand a very good chance of electing Ron DeSantis president in 2024 — when DeSantis runs on the awesomeness of the Jeb Crow Florida Model in all things, including education, and they agree with him.
If Democrats and others can’t or won’t discredit the easily discreditable Trump-Jeb Florida non-governance mashup that DeSantis represents because of cheap “liberal education reform” moral vanity, expect to see DeSantis taking the oath.
The active support of power makes any journalism easier
I was a Florida government and investigative newspaper reporter and editor from 1996-2008 — for the Palatka Daily News, the Lakeland Ledger, and the now defunct Tampa Tribune.
I know what it’s like to push provocative and complex investigations through the internal gears of publication — both with head winds and tails winds from external power. (Ask Jeb about CSX, which he never got to brag about while running for president for a reason.)
It’s a hell of a lot easier with power at your back. Night and day easier.
Most people seem convinced that ideology or bias drive what gets reported and published more than anything else. But that’s not true, in my experience. Ease of execution is far far more important. And power’s relationship to a story is an enormous part of that, generally the most important.
The hardest thing to do in journalism is tell an entire citizenry: everything power tells you is wrong. Everything you think you know is wrong. Power often has great interest in preventing that story or helping people ignore it or painting it as conspiracy — in an age when deranged conspiracy mongering is a real problem.
Straying beyond the conventional narrative that power deems acceptable gets you called asshole, crazy, or perhaps most importantly for a reporter — unserious or uncivil. Institutional journalism lives in terror of being mocked by power as unhinged or unserious or uncivil.
This was all true back when I was a reporter; and it’s exponentially moreso now. My career as a reporter was in another country compared to what today’s reporters must endure, which is similar in its systemic cruelty and institutional dread to what Florida’s public school educators and employees endure.
I bailed on the industry 13 years ago because I could see its collapse coming. It is the best professional and personal decision I have ever made. I shudder at the alternative almost every day. But that has only strengthened my respect and affection for the reporters and teachers alike who stuck out this time in Florida hedge fund journalism and Jeb Crow education hell because of their attachment to the inhernet nobility of both callings.
It’s hard for me to fully articulate my wishes for their personal well-being. It is why I spend this much time and effort on what I do for free.
And of course, one must add to that this year of loss and pain that everyone has endured. Teachers have had to teach through it, risking their unvaccinated lives in Florida under constant insult from Ron DeSantis and state leaders who are now giving raises to teachers who do not exist and cheating the men and women who kept schools open so DeSantis can run on their dead bodies in 2024. (At least three in Polk alone)
Journalism and life — with and without a net
Reporters have had to report on all this while experiencing it — under constant threat of losing their jobs.
Thus, no one can fairly evaluate the reporting or the people involved in the journalism of “Failure Factories” and “Schools without Rules” without understanding the human forces at work on individual reporters — and just how precarious their lives and jobs are.
While both organizations must function in this world, the Tampa Bay Times has a better, more supportive, independent ownership structure than the Orlando Sentinel — which is a hedge fund disguised as a newspaper. And power hated every second of the Sentinel reporters’ work on “Schools without Rules.” These reporters worked entirely without a professional or personal net.
Finding a way to report, publish, and defend “Schools without Rules” with no industry floor beneath their feet and the full wind of smug Florida power gusting non-stop in their face the entire time is an incredible human and professional accomplishment.
It’s a far greater accomplishment than anything I ever managed to publish, considering the circumstances. And there is a kind of happy fatalism to the Sentinelreporters that I find enormously appealing. They have my eternal respect.
By contrast, “public schools are failure factories because of local communities and their elected school boards” — is a narrative that cross partisan power is alwayseager to amplify.
Power has been selling this narrative as the most conventional of conventional wisdom for years and years and years. So “Failure Factories” always had the wind of Florida and national power at its back — before, during, and after publication. That’s especially true of the defining, two-word tagline that rendered the true local segregation reporting invisible.
Despite these advantages, by all indications I’ve seen, the Tampa Bay Times as an institution and the individual reporters who wrote the stories were perfectly content to quietly collect their Pulitzers. They played along as power viciously contorted the meaning of their reporting to strip mine the state of Florida to punish everyone for a problem clearly identified in the reporting as specific to Pinellas County.
(Please correct me if I’m missing something on this. I’ll happily note it.)
In fact, one of the key “Failure Factories” reporters also left newspaper journalism a few years ago to work first for an education think tank and now for Chalkbeat, the education “journalism” website funded by the Gates Foundation and the Walton family and other leading lights of “reform.” She also has a book contract for a history of school “choice.”
That is quite a protective net that power made available to this individual. The “Schools without Rules” reporters don’t have it. And ask yourself if Chalkbeat will ever report seriously on anything I’ve written here. LOL.
“Who is responsible?” Silent reporters who know better.
It’s my perception, without confirmation, that the Sentinel and Times reporters know and like each other; and I’m not interested in creating any beef between them. Life is hard for everybody right now. I’m trying to avoid even naming people so as to depersonalize this. I’ve never actually met any of these people in person. But we’ve had a number of digital conversations. (Sentinel people quoted me at various times as an elected board member.)
A few days ago I twitter messaged this former Times reporter a link to my earlier “Segregation Factories” articles, saying the outcomes they describe should make it into her book on “choice.” That’s all I said. She blocked me after the second link message.
In fairness, she’s heard less detailed versions of this critique before from me on Twitter. At least one time, the critique was pretty direct and sharp; and she objected to it. We haven’t said much to each other since then.
I’m sure she’s sick of my critique and of me personally. I can be tiresome and repetitive in trying to break conventional wisdom. But Pulitzers have consequences, good and bad, for their authors and for the people left to experience the aftermath while others pursue book contracts. And she shouldn’t worry — I doubt anyone of power in any party or “reform” will bother to read this. That’s one of the great luxuries of power.
But keep in mind, neither this reporter nor The Times, fully backed by lazy power, hesitated for a second to point a fierce finger of righteous judgment at other people. I see no indication whatsoever they’ve ever asked themselves: Are we really the good guys here?
In truth, the empty moralists of the “reform” movement long ago stopped having any case but their own inherent virtue and proximity to power for considering themselves “the good guys.” If they ever were the good guys; they’re not now. And they know it. Good guys don’t hide from the metastasizing consequences of their professional and moral mistakes.
We’ll explore that in my final “Segregation Factories” article. And I’ll ask what, if anything, serious “reformers” plan to do about any of this other than elect Voucher King and noted “liberal reformer” Ron DeSantis president.
“Who is responsible?” it asks in the last frame — with great umbrage. The written “Failure Factories” package answers by opening with this electric lead:
In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.
That’s pretty clear.
Yet, as I’ve noted, Florida’s largely ceremonial elected school board members have almost exactly as much real power over the direction and outcome of education policy as the Tampa Bay Times reporters had over how Richard Corcoran and other predators used their local reporting to destroy state education capacity for everyone.
And at no point of which I’m aware did any TBT reporter or executive or editorialist ever say: “This is a local story sympathetic to teachers. So shut up about it, Dick Corcoran and Arne Duncan and John King. Also, where’s the funding? Take our story out your mouth.”
They were just as quiet, if not moreso, as the Pinellas County School Board. And that’s a far more consequential and career advancing failure than anything the utterly insignificant Pinellas County School Board ever did.
So who’s “responsible” for that, Pulitzer-winning Times?
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