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Book ‘em
The author of a new book on New Orleans schools got a start in Milwaukee. And two Journal Sentinel reporters write a book on the Act 10 controversies.

Sarah Carr spent five years covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before an itch for change took her to New Orleans, where she covered the same beat for the Times Picayune. It was a unique opportunity. One result of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the fabric of the city was a controversial decision that converted the entire New Orleans school system into a massive experiment with charter schools and school choice.

Carr’s time in Milwaukee, a city on the leading edge of the movement for private school vouchers and expanding charter schools, turned out to be especially apt. She came here in 2002 after getting a master’s degree at Columbia University, where she wrote about New York City schools and fell in love with the subject. “I didn’t know at the time what a fascinating place it would be to write about education,” Carr says of Milwaukee.

A decade later, digging into the beat in New Orleans led her to write Hope Against Hope (Bloomsbury, 316 pp.), which came out last month. Carr will be back in town March 19 and 20 to discuss the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday night at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave, and Wednesday at Marquette University. Carr chronicles a year in the lives of three very different actors in the New Orleans system: a 14-year-old girl enrolled at a KIPP charter school, a Harvard grad recruited for Teach for America, and the principal of a re-opened school.

The approach gave her a degree of  intimacy not normally available. “It was a lot more invasive into people's lives than when you just go interview them for an hour,” says Carr. “I was really grateful for how open the people I followed were to letting me shadow them around.”

Watching outside media “parachute in” to cover the New Orleans schools reinforced for her the importance of being grounded in a community over time to get a fuller picture and reduce the risk of being misled by actors with a vested interest. Carr says the book allowed her to bring her own analysis to the topic, although she doesn’t make an argument directly for or against charter schools or Teach for America, both of which have vocal supporters as well as detractors.*

“When it comes to writing about highly politicized education issues,” Carr says, “my time in Milwaukee made me very suspicious of the extremes in the debate.”

Two diametrically opposed narratives about school choice get the most attention, she says: One, that school choice freed parents, children and even schools to excel; the other, that school choice did nothing but hurt poor families. “Too much education journalism focuses on quoting the extremes that perpetuated the two narratives,” instead of exploring the more subtle and complex reality that lies somewhere between them, Carr says.

The book took her much deeper than daily journalism usually permits. “I often felt constrained by length and space in newspapers,” she says. “Sometimes there really is only the space to get in the quote from either extreme” – at the expense of the more nuanced, fleshed-out portrayal of an issue. It also was a renewed lesson in the importance of getting into schools and of seeking out and interviewing parents, teachers and school administrators – not just superintendents, school board members or activists in the education debate. “It’s hard because that kind of reporting takes more time,” she says – time increasingly unavailable as staffs shrink and demands on reporters’ output keep rising.

Indeed, it was that changing newsroom culture that led Carr to leave the Times-Picayune when the paper downsized and cut its print publication to three days a week last year. She’s now a contributing editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit journalism organization specializing in education coverage.

Her years in Milwaukee brought home the importance of ground-level reporting. Data is needed to ground stories, she says, but by itself it tells little. “Data was relatively meaningless compared to the story of one teenager who was profiled as part of the series, who had assaulted her principal,” says Carr. “She had been shuttled around more than 25 foster homes and a dozen schools. It showed kids aren’t born troubled – they’re made that way.”

 

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Our next journalists-turned-authors are two JS Madison bureau reporters, Patrick Marley and Jason Stein. They are out with a book looking back at the battle over Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, the law that stripped public employees of most union rights and paved the way for nearly two years of protests, recall races and polarization in this state.

Tuesday Marley and Stein took part in a Q&A led by Public Policy Forum director Rob Henken about the book and the insights they gained while working on it. (They’ll be at Boswell’s March 26.) More Than They Bargained For (University of Wisconsin Press, 350 pp.) reconstructs the events before and after Walker introduced Act 10, its stormy passage and the aftermath. It includes details and analysis not previously reported in the heat of legislative and political battle.

“The human element – of who lawmakers are and what their background is – is really important to what happens at the state Capitol, but very often there's no time or space to explore that in a newspaper article,” Stein says in an email to Pressroom Buzz, written in consultation with Marley. “This project gave us that chance.”

Word of Act 10’s reach leaked out just one day before the bill was made public. “We knew it was a huge shift in policy for Wisconsin,” Marley told Henken during Tuesday’s Q&A session. But the press didn’t foresee the magnitude of the reaction, massive protests for weeks on end inside and outside the state Capitol building and more, Marley said.

I asked Stein and Marley whether one reason for that surprise was that coverage of workers and unions has shrunk so much from the news over the last several decades.

It may have to some degree, Marley says, but he points out that even union leaders didn’t realize how big the protests would be. While unions quickly rallied opposition and bused in members to speak against it at a Joint Finance Committee hearing, “they were stunned by the numbers that came to the Capitol.” The book quotes Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union: “Never did we think those first two lobby days we’d see that many people.”

Henken asked whether the national and even international attention to the bill, the protests, and the swift departure of Wisconsin’s 14 Democratic senators for Illinois to block its passage all helped to harden positions so that compromise was impossible.

“It was sort of like a couple working out marriage difficulties with the extended family in the room,” Stein told him – raising the stakes so that every move on either side immediately would be framed in the most polarized and polarizing terms.

The book grew out of their proposal to the UW Press in the summer of 2011, and it was produced mostly around their regular jobs, with only a little time off and lots of weekends and evenings spent writing.

The issue was distinctive and compelling for the moral dimension participants brought to it – on both sides. “It's rare when you're talking about budgets to have people so emotionally and morally invested in an issue and in this case it was on both sides,” Stein tells me in his email response with Marley. “It certainly complicated our reporting at times because you had to work with sources and take feedback from readers who were very upset about what was happening and had trouble understanding the other side's point of view. At the same time, it also enriched the reporting because it was great to have so many people so interested in their government and what was being reported on it.”

Did the emotion and moral fervor cramp their own objectivity? No, they say. “The pressure that we felt was more from the crushing deadlines, long hours and complicated issues,” Stein says. “Doing all that amid the protests was daunting at times. But the urgency and the importance of what was happening made us want to be more fair and more accurate, not less.

“We don't get too hung up on what we think about an issue,” he continues. “We’re more interested in what we can find out about a story and what other people's emotional reaction to it is, not our own. The bottom line is we saw Act 10 as a big deal and we wanted readers to know everything about it.”

*Full disclosure: As a freelancer, I edit material for an academic group that is deeply engaged in the school-reform debates and has published critiques of various reform strategies. My writing on education issues outside that work relies on my own research and analysis and neither represents nor is controlled by my editing clients.

 

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