Don’t Take This Resource for Granted
Applications for Funds May Contain Hidden, Valuable Truths
By Linda Perlstein, EWA public editor
The School District of Palm Beach County is so proud of its 5th consecutive “A” rating from the state of Florida that it’s advertised on district letterhead. Yet on a recent application for $120 million in Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation money, the school system gave itself a far more critical report card.
As Laura Green of the Palm Beach Post reported in an August 3 story, the proposal for a piece of the coveted $500 million in teacher quality grants reported that 70 percent of district teachers are ineffective, that high-rated schools do no better than others in teaching the lowest students, and that few students leave the system ready for college.
School systems are quite skilled at presenting just the good news, Palm Beach as much as anyone. So “when they are saying, basically, ‘This whole system we’re being measured by is a sham,’ you know immediately that’s a story,” Laura told me.
Laura has long seen grant proposals as a valuable resource for a reporter, ever since she covered a district—Anne Arundel County, Maryland—that complained it couldn’t track various demographic and testing data for her but never seemed to have a problem compiling such information for applications to funders.
Usually it isn’t hard to acquire these applications the way you access anything else from the school system, since grant proposals usually flow through the school board. But the Gates Foundation insists on extreme secrecy from districts and often ignores reporters’ queries. Even with Florida’s great open records laws, Laura had to get the Gates proposal through a source rather than from a public records request, because the district was slow in responding to her and she didn’t want to wait too long to write about it.
The public wasn’t even really supposed to know the district was one of 10 finalists for the funds, but the superintendent kept mentioning it at school board meetings. (Laura heard that district folks were reprimanded along the way for not being more secretive.)
Laura found some “meaty academic stuff” in the Gates proposal that she plans to flesh out later, particularly about proposed changes in rating teachers and awarding tenure. For now, the tidbit she pulled out on teacher quality—“ that 70 percent of the teaching staff is not effectively improving the performance of the lowest-performing students,” as she wrote in her story—proved plenty explosive. Readers provided 16 pages of comments to the story online. The teachers union president got more than 200 e-mails, many complaining he did not defend teachers strongly enough in the story. The superintendent put out a letter to teachers saying the 70 percent calculation was misconstrued, and the Post editorial page followed up with an editorial defending the original story.
(Laura had only two and a half hours to read the report and write the original story, and the school system wouldn’t answer her questions about the application.)
Palm Beach was one of ten Gates teacher effectiveness finalists, and it is out of the running for one of the main grants. (According to reports this week, districts still in the running are Hillsborough County, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; Pittsburgh; and a group of charters in Los Angeles.) Even if the proposals won't proceed in full, all the applications, like Palm Beach's, may contain data and assertions far more brutal than the school systems’ public pronouncements. At the very least, they, and many other grant proposals in districts around the country, must contain a treasure trove of story ideas. Don’t overlook them.
Linda Perlstein is available to help you. Contact her at 410-539-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.