Officials from the Koch brothers' funding arm have announced a new "venture philanthropy" project called Stand Together, with aims of "strengthening the fabric of American society," and focusing on "poverty" and "educational quality," according to USA Today. Media should know that: previous Koch-backed poverty and education efforts have been coupled with ideological proselytizing, Stand Together's executive director is a Koch veteran and former Republican congressional candidate who repeatedly fearmongered about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the group's top collaborator is associated with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan's sham "anti-poverty" efforts.
Student loan debt in America has reached a staggering $1.3 trillion, surpassing even credit card debt. But right-wing media figures have criticized efforts to combat student loan debt by pushing misinformation and blaming students for pursuing higher education.
Conservative media have labeled higher education as a "privilege" and suggested students ought to choose fictional cheaper colleges. Some outlets have even defended schools that take advantage of students and leave them with significant debt. But research shows college matters now more than ever, and the cost to attend is rising across the board. The student debt crisis is especially damaging for poor students and students of color, who more frequently attend cheaper open-access and community colleges and are still forced to borrow in higher numbers to pay for their education.
Blaming students for the student loan debt crisis ignores the facts and distracts from finding real solutions to America's skyrocketing student debt burden.
2015 was an important year in education policy, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the beginning of the 2016 election campaigns, and local fights for teachers and public schools making national headlines. In an important year for students and teachers across the education spectrum, however, some media outlets used their platforms to push falsehoods. Here are five of the worst media failures on public education this year.
This summer, teachers union opponent and former journalist Campbell Brown launched a "non-profit, non-partisan news site about education," called The Seventy Four. In spite of the site's stated mission to combat "misinformation and political spin" with "investigation, expertise, and experience," Brown hired Eric Owens, who has a long history of attacks on students and teachers, to write for the site. Owens has a long history of attacking and mocking teachers and students with transphobic, sexist, victim-blaming, and racially insensitive rhetoric as the education editor at the Daily Caller.
This year, The Wall Street Journal continued its campaign of misinformation on teachers unions, pushing harmful, union-opposed policies such as a Louisiana voucher program that was found to violate desegregation requirements and a Washington, D.C. voucher program reported to waste federal dollars on "unsuitable learning environments." The WSJ editorial board often explicitly attributed its support of these unsuccessful policies to combating teachers unions. In an October editorial, for example, the board wrote that being "unpopular with unions... ought to be a requirement for any education leadership position," ignoring the troubling realities of the programs they attempted to defend in spite of well-founded union concerns.
As ESSA moved through Congress in late November, the editorial board doubled down on its teacher-blaming rhetoric, claiming that the new legislation was favored by "teachers unions who want less accountability," and advocating for the continuation of unpopular high-stakes testing and voucher policies in the states.
The Washington Post editorial board similarly advocated for continuing the extensive testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind legislation, lending support to a high-stakes testing policy with questionable public or research support, and villainized teachers unions in the process. In its February editorial on the issue, the Post claimed that teachers unions "give lip service to accountability as long as their members aren't the ones held to account," and cited this self-interest as the source of unions' opposition to flawed teacher evaluation models that utilize students' standardized test scores to punish teachers.
Fox News featured offensive and often inaccurate commentary on public education and the teaching profession throughout the year -- in some cases doubling down on the anti-teacher rhetoric many Fox figures pushed in 2014.
In February, Outnumbered co-host Kennedy kicked off the teacher-bashing by arguing that "there really shouldn't be public schools," before the hosts agreed that the federal Department of Education ought to be abolished. In April, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy slurred prospective bilingual educators, referring to immigrants with legal permission to work in the United States as "illegals" during a segment highlighting an initiative to boost language learning in schools.
In August, Fox & Friends included a segment where Fox News regular Frank Luntz conducted a live focus group segment about public education. Questions for the focus group included "Who here has issue with teachers unions?" and "Doesn't it make you angry that you're putting all this money into public schools?" Luntz followed up his leading question about teachers unions by singling out a teacher from the group and asking him to "defend" himself.
In an October discussion about New York City schools on Fox's The Five, the co-hosts implored the city's public school teachers to "become a better teacher" and "don't suck at your job." That same month, co-host Juan Williams attacked unions' endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, asserting that an "unholy alliance between education unions and Democrats" would be "dangerous for our kids" and would "hurt" "minority communities" and "poor people."
This year also marked the launch of the 2016 presidential campaign season, with five Republican and three Democratic debates held this fall. While candidates outlined their positions time and again on national security issues, women's health care, and taxes, the debates barely mentioned education issues. A Media Matters search of all eight full debate transcripts found only nine mentions of any variation of the term "teach." In fact, according to this review, no candidate or moderator uttered the phrases "No Child Left Behind," "Race To The Top," or "Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)" throughout the 2015 debate season, despite the recent passage of the landmark ESSA legislation replacing No Child Left Behind.
Moderators did discuss schools and teachers a handful of times throughout the debate season, mostly in relation to national security. In the August 6 Republican debate on Fox News, moderator Bret Baier questioned former Governor Jeb Bush (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on their disagreement on the Common Core state standards and asked former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR) whether he would abolish the Department of Education, among other federal agencies. The moderators of the October 28 CNBC Republican debate also mentioned teachers once, when moderator Carlos Quintanilla asked Donald Trump about his comments that educators ought to be armed. And on CNN's December 15 Republican debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer asked candidates about the closure of the Los Angeles Unified school district following an email threat.
The other five debates did not feature questions regarding K-12 education policy.
Public school educators and their unions in major cities made national headlines in 2015 following strikes, contentious contract negotiations, school board elections, and school funding battles. While research shows that teachers unions not only protect the rights of educators but also benefit students and their communities, state newspapers editorializing on union activities framed unions and educators as selfishly seeking higher pay at the expense of others.
Amidst a victory year for teachers unions on several fronts, Media Matters found that state newspapers in New York, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, California, and Washington published editorials distorting the facts to question the motives of teachers and attack their right to organize.
In Buffalo, New York, The Buffalo News repeatedly claimed that teachers unions supporting a parent-led movement against standardized testing want to maintain "the wretched, costly, dysfunctional status quo" and require children to "pay the price." In Scranton, Pennsylvania, The Scranton Times-Tribune lamented that teachers unions had the ability to strike and dismissed teachers' calls to be treated with respect and dignity. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Albuquerque Journal mocked teachers' concerns over an unfair evaluation method that was subsequently struck down by a district court that agreed with the unions. In Los Angeles, California, the Los Angeles Times dismissed unions' worries that a charter expansion plan created by one of the paper's education reporting funders would financially jeopardize local public schools, telling those who opposed the plan to "quit whining." And in Seattle, Washington, The Seattle Times repeatedly attacked the local union for "using their students as pawns," as they advocated for fair pay, guaranteed recess time, more funding for schools, and greater equity in school discipline policies.
These editorial board attacks on educators -- because of the readers they serve and the prominence of local priorities on education policy -- have the dangerous potential to shift public conversation away from the facts and to pit communities against the teachers who advocate for them. After a year where the importance of education policy has become more critical than ever, hopefully this disturbing trend will not continue in 2016.
Image by Ian MacKenzie under a Creative Commons license.
Public school educators and their unions in major cities made national headlines in 2015 following strikes, contentious contract negotiations, school board elections, and funding battles. While research shows that teachers unions benefit students, educators, and communities, state newspapers editorializing on these union activities have ignored the facts and framed unions and educators as selfishly seeking higher pay at the expense of others. Amidst a victory year for teachers unions on several fronts, here are some of the most inaccurate claims state newspaper editorial boards pushed.
From the November 12 edition of Fox News' The Kelly File:
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From the November 11 edition of Fox News' Fox and Friends:
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A regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times is criticizing the paper for funding the salaries for its education journalists through donations from foundations that fund efforts in the field, stating that the decision "inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs."
On October 29, The Washington Post reported that the Los Angeles Times' "Education Matters" local education reporting project, which launched in August, is funded by three philanthropic foundations with extensive ties to education reform efforts in the Los Angeles area. Then-publisher Austin Beutner, the Post reported, spearheaded the project, accepting enough funding from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, K&F Baxter Foundation, and the Wasserman Foundation "to cover the salaries of two education journalists for at least two years."
Eli Broad, chairman of the Broad Foundation, has also recently offered to buy the Times from its current owner, Tribune Publishing, in a move that would return the paper to local ownership but could also further conflict-of-interest concerns.
The Post noted that recent education coverage in the Times has not been consistent in disclosing its connections to the Broad Foundation. An article breaking the news of the Broad Foundation's plan to expand charter schools in Los Angeles in September included a disclosure that the foundation funds "Education Matters." However, an editorial supporting the plan did not. According to the Post, the LA Times' managing editor has stated that funders have no editorial control, and has already made efforts to add disclosure statements to stories that directly report on Broad and others.
On November 4, American Prospect executive editor and frequent Los Angeles Times opinion writer Harold Meyerson responded to the Washington Post article, outlining the disclosure issues he believes the Times will now face in their local education reporting:
Whatever possessed [then-publisher Austin] Beutner to accept funding from partisans in an ongoing battle that the Times was already covering in its news pages and editorializing about in its opinion pages--and not just funding, but funding specifically targeted at covering that very battle? Would he have accepted funding from either Catholic Charities or Planned Parenthood to bolster the Times's coverage of the battles over abortion and reproductive rights? Would he have accepted funding from the local teachers union, or a pro-union foundation, to cover the same beat that the Broad and Baxter money are now funding? I suspect he would not--and that what made the Broad/Baxter money different in Beutner's eyes was that he felt comfortable with their positions, and probably believed that their commitment to charter schools was widely shared throughout the city's power elites--of which Beutner was a member in very good standing.
[A]ccepting funds to cover the very beat in which his funders were inevitably going to be the subject of the paper's coverage was not his right, and is profoundly damaging to the Times. It inflicts the appearance of a conflict of interest on every local education story or opinion piece the Times runs.
As a longtime Los Angeles journalist before I moved to D.C., I know a number of the Times's reporters and editors who cover this topic on the news and opinion pages. They are among the most principled journalists I've ever known. Howard Blume, my onetime colleague at the L.A. Weekly, included an acknowledgment of the Broad Foundation's funding of Times education coverage in the story in which he broke the news about the Foundation's plan to increase the number of charter schools. Howard's work aside, it's not clear that the paper's management felt such disclaimers were even necessary until the Post story ran last Friday. Presumably, such disclaimers will now have to accompany the scores of stories about the future of L.A. schools that Howard and his peers will be turning out over the next several years, to the point where the disclaimers will become something of a standing joke. Howard and his paper need this like a hole in the head. [The American Prospect, 11/4/15]
An October 5 editorial by the Wall Street Journal used anti-union rhetoric and pro-privatization arguments to celebrate Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's resignation and replacement by Acting Deputy Education Secretary John King. The editorial perpetuated several well-worn education policy myths, and mischaracterized the economic outcomes of for-profit colleges and the effects of voucher programs for low-income students of color.
From the October 6 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor:
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As the nation's student loan debt burden continues to grow and voters look to 2016 presidential candidates for solutions, right-wing media continue to perpetuate debunked myths about college costs, financial aid, and student loans. Here are the facts that conservative media outlets ignore.
From the September 10 edition of Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto:
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Fox News tried to blame First Lady Michelle Obama's healthy school lunch program for reports of financial woes and layoffs at school districts, but it failed to disclose that the study it cited comes from a group supported in part by food industry companies that sell their product to schools, including PepsiCo, General Mills, and Domino's.
On the August 26 edition of Fox News' Special Report, host Bret Baier highlighted the findings of a new study from the School Nutrition Association (SNA) that claims implementation of the National School Lunch Program's healthier nutritional standards has led to school district worker layoffs and financial struggles. The standards were established after Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, the centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative.
Baier told viewers, "School is back, or soon will be, and healthy school lunches are resulting in unhealthy school finances." He went on to cite the SNA study's claim that "56 percent of districts have lost lunch participants because of the new healthy standards championed by the first lady" and that "seven of 10 [school districts that responded] say the standards have hurt the financial situation of the local meals programs, with almost half choosing to reduce staffing."
But Baier failed to disclose that the School Nutrition Association, which describes itself as "a national, nonprofit professional organization representing more than 55,000 members who provide high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country," has deep ties to the industry that sells food products to school districts. As Media Matters has previously written, the SNA lists Schwan's Food Service, a company that specializes in providing pizza to schools and restaurants, as a "major" donor. The association has also accepted funding from PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra, and Domino's Pizza. Schwan and PepsiCo also hold seats on the SNA's board of directors.
Schwan, ConAgra, and General Mills were also among major members of the food industry behind successful lobbying efforts to preserve pizza's classification as a vegetable for the purpose of school nutritional standards in 2011.
A Wall Street Journal editorial on student debt takes aim at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's New College Compact college affordability plan, arguing that Democrats have "encouraged student debt" in order to win over young voters with debt relief proposals. In addition to favoring fewer opportunities for low-income students, the board's argument ignores the flawed and sometimes corrupt private lending system that led the government to reform the student loan process, and the recession-driven policies supported by both parties that have sent higher-ed costs skyrocketing.
The August 21 WSJ editorial characterized Clinton's recently-announced student debt relief proposal as part of a larger "arc of progressive politics" that first causes problems, and then presents voters with solutions. The short editorial - which is also short on facts - is worth quoting in its entirety (emphasis added):
The arc of progressive politics these days seems to be hoping to benefit from proposing policies to solve the problems their previous policies have created--and hoping nobody notices the cause and effect.
Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic presidential candidates have been proposing new ways for college students to reduce or write-off their student loans. The goal is to win over millennial voters with more taxpayer largesse, while slowly turning higher education into one more universal federal entitlement. Mrs. Clinton's proposal would cost a hefty $350 billion over 10 years, by her own no doubt conservative estimate.
What Democrats don't say is that such taxpayer generosity wouldn't be necessary if they hadn't done so much to encourage students to load up on taxpayer-guaranteed debt. The Education Department reported this week that some 6.9 million Americans with student loans hadn't made a single payment in at least 360 days. That's up 6%, or 400,000 borrowers, in a year.
The Obama Administration took over the student loan market in 2010, easing terms and expanding benefits. Now that the bills are coming due in (sic) more deadbeats, Democrats hope to benefit again by handing the tab to taxpayers. They nail you coming and going. [Wall Street Journal, 8/21/15]
The editorial lays the blame for the national student debt crisis at the feet of the Obama Administration, which it says "took over the student loan market" in 2010. That's a reference to The Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which eliminated the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, a lending system that dates back to 1965 and offered government-guaranteed student loans through private and nonprofit lenders. In its place, the government created the present-day Direct Loan program, which cuts out private lenders and issues loans directly to students (private lending continued without the government's backing).
Among other things, the 2010 education loan overhaul lowered interest rates for certain borrowers, upped maximum award amounts for Pell grants, expanded access to both income-based repayment and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness plan by allowing borrowers to consolidate into loans eligible for these programs, and made income-based repayment significantly more affordable. The Congressional Budget Office projected that the new, simplified loan program would save the government $68 billion over 11 years.
The WSJ editorial made no mention of the 2010 law's cost savings for the government or students, or the circumstances that laid the groundwork for the reform. Before 2010, the government was paying millions to private lenders to subsidize interest rates on federally-backed loans. In 2004, it was discovered that private lenders were exploiting a legal loophole and overcharging the government for those subsidies. In 2007, several lenders also admitted to engaging in illegal deals with colleges to encourage students to borrow from them.
Those revelations shook public and policymakers' confidence in the whole system of privately-issued, taxpayer-backed student loans and helped set the stage for the 2010 reforms.
In August, 2012 -- two years after the Direct Loan program began -- the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued a report that showed how private student loans, which often come with variable interest rates and limited repayment options, expose borrowers to greater credit risk and higher costs. Despite that damning finding, the Republican Party's 2012 party platform called for an end to direct lending and a return to the FFEL-style lending system that had allowed private lenders to overcharge taxpayers and exposed student borrowers to higher debt costs.
Another of The Journal's claims -- that progressive policies have created a cycle of "entitlement" -- is undermined by the fact that bipartisan measures have increased pressure on students to borrow ever-higher amounts of money to pay for college. State-level budget cuts to higher education in the wake of the 2007 recession, for example, have been a proven cause of higher college costs across the board, especially at community colleges. An in-depth analysis of state higher education disinvestment from 2007-2012 by the Center for American Progress found that 29 of 50 states had lowered their direct funding of public institutions. By Media Matters' count, legislative leadership in those 29 states was almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, proving the fallacy of the Journal's claim that progressive policies are responsible for driving up higher-ed costs.
Finally, the Journal's claim that expanding access to student loans leads to more "deadbeats" looking to taxpayers to foot their loan bills echoes a common conservative talking point that says expanding access to higher education through accessible student loan programs results in unqualified (read: undeserving) students going off to college.
That argument ignores the reality that taking on some measure of student debt is inevitable for most Americans, regardless of what kind of school they attend. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, nearly 70 percent of graduates of public or private nonprofit schools had loan debt. Tuition costs are rising quickly at every type of higher education institution, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics: private colleges, state universities, vocational schools, community colleges, even professional certification programs. And the growing debt burden is shouldered disproportionately by low-income, black and Hispanic borrowers, many of whom lack the adequate financial resources to avoid borrowing.
The bottom line is that any argument against the loan simplification measures and expanded student aid established in 2010 is an argument to limit college opportunities, which will inevitably hit low-income, minority students hardest. The Wall Street Journal's elitist dismissal of the serious problem of student debt, and its partisan argument against worthwhile policy solutions, reinforces a stratified system of higher education that limits opportunities for deserving Americans.
Right-wing media have falsely claimed Hillary Clinton's debt-free college plan eliminates student financial responsibility and doesn't address rising tuition costs. In fact, students on the plan would be required to work, and the proposal ties federal funding to states lowering school costs.
From the July 12 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:
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