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Does The Guardian Really Consider This Journalism?

A recent article on the UTLA strike threat is a perfect example of the paper’s biased education reporting

If you’re seeking balanced, nuanced reporting on U.S. education issues from professional journalists, you won’t find it in the pages of The Guardian these days.

Even a cursory review of their recent output makes clear that the bulk of their education coverage is at best amateurish and at worst laughably biased, and largely comes from freelancers who apparently get little guidance or pushback from the Guardian’s editors.

Case-in-point: The paper’s most recent article on the looming threat of a strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, “‘There’s no paper in the classroom’: Why Los Angeles teachers are moving toward a strike,” written by freelance journalist Michael Sainato.

To put it bluntly, it reads as if Sainato drafted his story around a set of talking points he received from UTLA’s public relations team, who were also good enough to provide him with a list of folks he should interview.

Freelance journalist Michael Sainato wrote the Guardian’s recent piece on the looming UTLA strike.

According to Sainato’s skewed portrayal of the situation, the district isn’t hurtling towards a shutdown due to the the political ambitions of UTLA’s leaders, or the unreasonable and fiscally irresponsible demands they’ve made in contract negotiations with L.A. Unified officials. Instead, he gives readers the impression that UTLA’s impending strike is part of a broader wave of teacher activism sweeping the country, while placing the blame squarely on the teachers unions’ perennial boogeymen: underfunding of schools, overcrowded classrooms, standardized testing, and of course, charter schools.

It’s an easy case to make, especially since every single person he quotes in the piece is in lockstep with the teachers unions. However, what he fails to disclose in his reporting is that nearly all of the individuals quoted are actually officials in either UTLA or groups with close organizational and financial ties to the union.

All four teachers (for reference, there are nearly 27,000 teachers in LAUSD) who appear in the article – Elgin Scott, Julie Van WinkleVictoria Casas, and Matthew Kogan – are members of UTLA’s board of directors. Kogan also serves as a vice-president with UTLA’s state affiliate, the California Federation of Teachers.

UTLA board members Elgin Scott, Julie Van Winkle, Victoria Casas, and Matthew Kogan.

In spite of their positions in the union hierarchy, none of the four are able to make a compelling case for why UTLA needs to disrupt the education of LAUSD’s 735,000 students by walking out. Victoria Casas, for example, wants UTLA to force the district to scale back its standardized testing requirements, citing the Dibels assessments that she has to administer to her elementary schoolers three times a year. Yet it only takes about three minutes to administer the Dibels per child, which would probably amount to less time than she will spend handing out candy to her class over the coming week.

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The article also quotes Rudy Gonsalves, described as the director of Reclaim Our Schools L.A., who says that the $11,000 LAUSD spends on each student every year is “way below the national average” and “significantly below what we need for a student to succeed in a traditional school.”

Yet once again, Sainato fails to correct some misinformation. First of all, the district spends approximately $16,000 per pupil, which far exceeds the national average of $11,642 in 2017, according to the latest figures from the National Education Association’s annual Rankings and Estimates Report.

Moreover, Rudy Gonsalves can’t be the director of Reclaim Our Schools L.A., since no such organization exists. Much like the national Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, ROS-LA is nothing more than an advocacy campaign backed and largely funded by the teachers unions. In reality, Gonsalves works for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE. As I’ve reported elsewhere, LAANE receives funding from several teachers unions and the California Teachers Association holds a seat on its board of directors.

Screenshot from LAANE’s website.

While Sainato could be forgiven for missing things like Gonsalves’ ties to LAANE, it’s much harder to explain away his omission of so many other central elements of this story. There isn’t a single sentence in his entire 1,500-word article about the LAUSD’s dire financial situation, which L.A. County officials have warned could soon bankrupt the district. He makes a point of mentioning LAUSD Supt. Austin Buetner’s previous career in finance, but says nary a peep about the skyrocketing costs of the exceedingly generous healthcare benefits mandated by UTLA’s contract. He repeats the hackneyed claims of UTLA leaders who accuse LAUSD officials of being in the pocket of rich privatizers, but fails to raise the awkward question of whether it’s appropriate for the teachers union to sidestep the democratic process by pursuing policy objectives through closed-door contract negotiations.

When taken together, it’s hard to make case that the Guardian’s latest piece on the showdown in Los Angeles meets the journalistic rigor that you would expect from a legendary 197 year-old newspaper, and honestly, that’s pretty sad.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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