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John Merrow Responds, and So Do I

September 13, 2013

UPDATE 09-14-13:  Though my response to Merrow is harsh, if he would reconsider his position, even now I would welcome it. My overall goal is not to be right but to bring relief to my corporate-reform-abused hometown. To this end, I have issued Mr. Merrow an invitation at the end of this post.

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Yesterday, I wrote a post about John Merrow’s decisions to both discontinue his reporting on Michelle Rhee, a damaging reformer whom his media attention helped create, and his creating a documentary in which he declares New Orleans schools a success. I showed that since 2004, Merrow has accepted approximately one million dollars from well-established education reform promoter Bill Gates. Below is Merrow’s response to me this morning and my counter-response.

Merrow responded to my reblogging this entry to @thechalkface.

Chalkface,
I accept your invitation to respond. I don’t believe I have ever read the Gates guidelines. I know for certain that we approached Gates (and a raft of other foundations) for support for our year-long study of American higher education, which became “Declining by Degrees,” a 2-hour film and a book. That was our first grant.
In “The Influence of Teachers” I explain in great detail how the Rhee/NOLA coverage came about. Briefly, I called both Vallas, whom I knew slightly from Chicago, and Rhee, whom I had never met, and suggested that we cover them in depth for the NewsHour. We had $$ to cover ONE but both accepted. I didn’t have the funds but committed to both stories anyway, gambling that some foundations would support the coverage. The Wallace Foundation was immediately supportive. By chance I shared a cab to the airport with a Gates Foundation program officer; I took that opportunity to tell her about my dilemma, and she took charge.
The third grant (which was, I believe, two separate grants) was essentially a continuation of support for our NewsHour work. By the time Part Two of that grant rolled around, Gates had narrowed its focus and wanted coverage of quite specific issues. That made us uncomfortable, and the relationship came to an end.
The small grant ($20,000) came from a different part of the Gates Foundation and was actually a contract, not a grant. The program officer needed to specific task, and, as I recall, I would not specify an individual NewsHour piece because that would sound like paying for coverage. But $20,000 was perhaps 5% of the cost of the New Orleans film, not enough for anyone to infer that Gates was ‘buying’ coverage.
Now, as to “Rebirth,” I don’t know if you experienced the public schools in New Orleans prior to the storm. I did, and they were enough to make one physically sick. Everyone who could afford an alternative put their kids elsewhere. Today the schools there probably deserve a C-, and that is a remarkable accomplishment. Are they too test-score driven? Yes, unfortunately. That narrow focus has resulted, it seems to me, in too many look-alike schools, something the founders of the charter movement did not expect. But New Orleans has set a high bar for charters and has closed down schools that haven’t measured up.
I don’t live in a black-and-white, either-or world, and I believe that the critics of what has happened in New Orleans are willing to let the best be the enemy of the good. What’s happening in New Orleans in a work-in-progress, susceptible to sabotage from the right and the left. The right, including the Governor, would like to allow lots of agencies to grant charters, part of a privatization strategy. I am not sure what the left’s solution is.
And as for covering Michelle Rhee, I think my critics ought to be writing Nick Kristoff, Charles Blow, Bill Moyers, Tom Friedman, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, the editors of the Washington Post and the Atlantic, Diane Rehm, Jon Stewart and all the other folks who have far more influence than I. Why aren’t they on this story? The data could not be clearer: her ‘scorched earth’ approach has been tried, and it is an abject failure. And why isn’t the failure of the mainstream media to cover this story a story of its own?
You know that I have exposed Rhee’s failure to act when confronted with evidence of cheating; have shown how her basic approach to ‘reform’ all but guaranteed cheating; have documented the hollow and fatally flawed nature of every one of the so-called investigations; have given chapter and verse of the Washington Post’s editorial page shameful cheerleading (especially when contrasted with the courage of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution); and have called out the national media for its failure to report the story.
I went to Dartmouth, where “vox clamantis in deserto” is a college motto, but being a voice crying in the wilderness in this case is actually counter-productive. Right-leaning bloggers dismiss the evidence by painting this as personal, a vendetta, calling me Ahab or a high school senior whose prom date stood him up. That would be laughable if it were not effective–some people want to cling to Rhee’s narrative, which they have adopted.
I can handle being attacked (Rhee mounted a major smear campaign against me while we were reporting for Frontline, and I survived), but I don’t think you are moving the ball forward.
As I said, if more credible sources come forward, I will be back on the story. And my mailing address is 127 West 26th Street, #1200, NY NY10001.

Let me add that no one from Gates has EVER tried to influence our reporting. That has happened twice in my 40 years. Once while at NPR I returned a grant; I turned down a large ($350K+) grant from a foundation somewhere around 1995 because it wanted to control the contents of a film.

My response:

Mr. Merrow, all of my writings and those of Barbara Ferguson from Research on Reforms are backed by evidence that you are choosing to ignore in favor of the Leslie Jacobs snow job. To write that you are waiting for a more credible source is a cop out.

You can write that you knew what New Orleans “was,” however, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, if you believe that you know what New Orleans IS. The Recovery School District has yet to “turn around” a single school and return such schools to OPSB. Instead, the schools have been taken over by charter companies that are under-regulated; they take public money and are able to fold and be replaced by yet another charter company– sometimes allowing accreditation to lapse and rendering students’ diplomas worthless. This I have documented, just as I have documented the conflict of interest between State Board President Chas Roemer and his sister, Louisiana Assn for Public Charter Schools CEO Caroline Roemer-Shirley. Barbara Ferguson has documented the selective-admission charters; I have documented the convoluted “open”-enrollment process for parents of RSD students; I have documented John White’s overt resistance to follow the state audit recommendations for Louisiana charters. I have documented the failing school performance scores of RSD. What more do you want, Mr. Merrow, by way of “credible” sources? Are you waiting for major media to declare that RSD is a farce? How about John White? Are you waiting for him to be honest?

As for Rhee, you did indeed help create her. Your exposure of her is incomplete. She continues to travel the country making money hand over fist for her “reform” success. Meanwhile, you declare, “Well, I’m done here.”

And however you care to explain it, you did accept one million from Bill Gates. This, coupled with your defending your right to drop reporting on Michelle Rhee and also continuing to promote New Orleans as a success reflects poorly in you, sir. It just does.

May your New Orleans “Afterbirth” bomb at the box office in the same way that Rhee’s lie, “Won’t Back Down,” did.

 

–Mercedes Schneider

 

UPDATE 09-14-13:  I have added three comments and an invitation to the body of this post. The first comment is from Louisiana State Board of Education (BESE) member Lottie Beebe. Her words bespeak the need for Louisiana charter school accountability/thorough investigation and sanctions:

Your response was “spot on”, Mercedes.  DId Merrow inform his audience that the NEW Orleans experience is not a level playing field? –No certified teachers are required. Some schools operate with a mission focus that by design brings about selective admissions.   I am often told of parents’ experiences where Charter operators are unwilling  to accept students with disabilities and “selective admissions”; however, this is often disputed.  Additionally, there have been allegations of cheating–also disputed. There have also been allegations of the awarding of Carnegie units in courses never taken.

Frankly, charters are highly embraced by those who want a return to segregation and the “private” experience. Vouchers are touted merely as a distraction, in my opinion.  The money lies with the charter movement. It is about making every traditional system appear to be failing when we know many of our traditional schools have done great jobs of educating–specifically, the politicians who are now ready to abandon them. Let’s talk about Louisiana and the areas of failure–poverty, infrastructure, obesity, etc.   Let’s be honest!  [Emphasis added.]

This second comment is from a New Orleans teacher. This comment highlights obstacles that the “failing” schools had to combat:

I, too, remember what New Orleans was. Yes, having to work at overcrowded, underfunded schools with NO air conditioners and few resources was indeed enough to make anyone physically ill. But that is where I began my teaching career and these teachers, mostly men and women of color, strong, dedicated, inspired  [Emphasis added.]

And another teacher’s comment about Merrow’s “deciding” that New Orleans’ schools (RSD?)  “probably deserve a C-.”  “Deserve”??

Love that you are aggressively holding his feet to the fire.  Although his response is so appealingly written he stopped me cold when he characterized NO schools now as a -C.  By whose account?  [Emphasis added.]

Following Hurricane Katrina, the per-pupil funding available was between $18,000 and $23,000– and it was squandered. Yet eight years after Katrina, Mr. Merrow writes that (I assume) the takeover schools “deserve a C-.”  Not a miracle– and not Merrow’s place to assign his own grade. School grading– the pivot upon which Louisiana charter infestation rests– is capricious and is in the hands of a TFA token, non-educator superintendent. Let us not forget that.

An Invitation for Mr. Merrow

Mr. Merrow, I invite you to come to New Orleans and allow me to take you on a tour so that you might form a more realistic perspective of the education situation here. We could also meet and discuss public schooling issues with the stakeholders being damaged by the charter churn.

16 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Crazy Crawfish's Blog and commented:
    A very intriguing and entertaining exchange between our national education reporter John Merrier and our own Mercedes Schneider about RSD and Michelle Rhee.

  2. Lafayette Ann permalink

    The left’s solution, Mr. Merrow, is to improve traditional public schools. It is to use demonstrably sound methods to teach every child, to support teachers, and to do so while being responsible with taxpayer money. It is not to privatize public education. The left, in general, thinks we can do this with local schools and local school boards. It is as simple as that.

    • trish.bonner.39@facebook.com permalink

      Which left are you referring to? Apparently you’ve missed Obama & Duncan’s national education policies which jindal is following like a coach follows his game plan.

  3. Elizabeth Willis permalink

    Forty years of joyous teaching brought me 100% of my salary for retirement. That yearly income is allowing me to be the public education advocate who is developing a stronger voice day by day. Thank you Louisiana Teacher Retirement System for giving me the time to join with other education retirees to study the writings of strong passionate public school advocates. Mercedes Schneider, you are truly amazing and I want to learn more from you. Keep writing because we retirees are ready to take on the deformer status quo. I am a proud BAD ASS TEACHER!!!

    • Florence permalink

      Yes, and that’s why there’s a push to have cities (and states) declare “bankruptcy”: to cut teacher and other public workers’ pensions.

      We retired teachers are a “dangerous” group to the deformers so keep your eye on your state and local politicians and their proposed legislation.

  4. Love that you are aggressively holding his feet to the fire. Although his response is so appealingly written he stopped me cold when he characterized NO schools now as a -C. By whose account?

  5. jo ann permalink

    a great response, Mercedes…Let’s hope it’s not on deaf and greedy ears!

  6. I, too, remember what New Orleans was. Yes, having to work at overcrowded, underfunded schools with NO air conditioners and few resources was indeed enough to make anyone physically ill. But that is where I began my teaching career and these teachers, mostly men and women of color, strong, dedicated, inspired

  7. Your response was “spot on”, Mercedes. DId Merrow inform his audience that the NEW Orleans experience is not a level playing field? –No certified teachers are required. Some schools operate with a mission focus that by design brings about selective admissions. I am often told of parents’ experiences where Charter operators are unwilling to accept students with disabilities and “selective admissions”; however, this is often disputed. Additionally, there have been allegations of cheating–also disputed. There have also been allegations of the awarding of Carnegie units in courses never taken.

    Frankly, charters are highly embraced by those who want a return to segregation and the “private” experience. Vouchers are touted merely as a distraction, in my opinion. The money lies with the charter movement. It is about making every traditional system appear to be failing when we know many of our traditional schools have done great jobs of educating–specifically, the politicians who are now ready to abandon them. Let’s talk about Louisiana and the areas of failure–poverty, infrastructure, obesity, etc. Let’s be honest!

  8. Taliesin permalink

    Always wary with the expression “those who are willing to let the best be the enemy of the good” which is pretty much the essence of the homogenization of the Common Core. We’ll see what happens “at the end of the day”, language of the Foundations.

  9. Bridget permalink

    What is the likelihood of sharing a cab with a Gates Foundation program officer “by chance”?
    Just wondering???

  10. “. . . a high school senior whose prom date stood him up. . .”

    First read that as “whose porn date” which might be more accurate for Merrow.

    And if I may correct one of your sentences: “She continues to travel the country making money hand over fist for her SUPPOSED “reform” success.

  11. Cosmic Tinkerer permalink

    Mercedes, based on Merrow’s response to me yesterday, I think his unswaying opinion that NOLA has undergone a “rebirth” is just that, a personal opinion based solely on his observations, i.e., anecdotes.

    He wrote, “Re NOLA, did you spend any time in those schools pre-Katrina? Have you been to any schools there lately? Sure, they are a long way from perfect, but most are a damn sight better than pre-storm.”

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  1. Merrow Vs. Schneider on New Orleans and Rhee | Diane Ravitch's blog

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