John Merrow is the Education Correspondent for the PBS News Hour. He is also president of his own organization, Learning Matters Inc., through which he does his work for The News Hour as well as documentaries for PBS.
Several points to note.
- His wife served for 17 years as the head of Castilleja School, and now that they have moved back to NYC is the new head of the Hewitt School.
- The funders for his Learning Matters include the foundations of Bill Gates and of Eli Broad (the latter is NOT listed on the home page but was included in a recent email about a program showing last night).
Does any of this concern you? Should I explain why I ask that question?
Let's start with the schools his wife has headed. "The annual tuition at Castilleja is $33,590. Families who cannot afford the full cost of tuition are supported by a well-established tuition assistance program which distributes over $1.6 million dollars to 18% of the student body" (that information is quoted directly from the school's webpage). Hewitt School lists a comprehensive fee of $36,650. This is a very different world than public schools, especially those in inner cities.
Then there are his funders. Those who closely follow educational issues are well aware of the role played by the family foundations of Eli Broad and Bill Gates, which are often together in their funding efforts. Among the organizations they have helped fund are Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. They are among the groups included by Diane Ravitch in what she describes as the Billionaire Boys Club, the very wealthy (including also things the the Walton family of Walmart) who use their wealth to drive educational policy in specific directions. Many of the things supported by such people lack a research base.
It is worth noting that Broad and Gates funded an effort during the last election cycle to try to elevate education policy to a more important role, but of course with their idea of reform being the focus. Gates has been providing money for states to prepare their applications for funds under the Race to the Top program - I remind you that some of the requirements for receiving funds under RttT include lifting caps on charter schools, lifting any bans on tying teacher compensation to student test scores, and selecting at least one of four proposed models for restructuring of failing schools. None of the four methods has any research that supports it as an effective method, a point also made by Diane Ravitch.
Merrow is a voice listened to by many on the political left - after all, his primary venue has been the News Hour. Those who have seen a large amount of his output would have noted the coverage of Teach for America, and the focus he has put on Michelle Rhee in DC and on Paul Vallas, now about to leave New Orleans after previous tenures (including at boss and predecessor to Arne Duncan) in Chicago and in Philadelphia.
Please note - I am not making any accusations of deliberate bias on Merrow's part. I do think it is valid to raise the question of whether this major voice in educational coverage is however in anyway compromised by either his funders or his wife's employment in non-public schools in a major role. Let me offer this for your consideration: what if his wife were the superintendent of a large urban district and his funding was from the NEA and the AFT, and he was doing many pieces that appeared to shine a positive light on unionized schools versus non-unionized schools - can you imagine the screams from those hostile to teachers unions and public schools?
The word "reform" has been hijacked with respect to education. It becomes very hard to offer the perspectives of those not supported by the likes of Gates and Broad. Paul Vallas gets multiple stories, Michelle Rhee gets multiple stories, we get pieces (including some criticism) on Teach for America. We do not get equivalent coverage of the work unions do on behalf of the students. We do not get the same focus on more traditional urban superintendents. We do not get the focus on those who commit to education as a career (unlike most participants in TFA. That kind of focus could reshape the concept of what education really needs.
Again, I am not accusing Merrow of bias. But I am raising a question. Do the connections I mentioned above the fold concern you? Should they?
And now you will excuse me. I must get dressed and head out to my summer job - today the students with whom I have been working will sit for another state test on the computer in the morning, and we will spend the afternoon preparing them for the test tomorrow.