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Commentary: Reformers By Any Other Name?

Hillel Aron | March 15, 2013



In September, I was talking about pension reform on my now-defunct weekly podcast, LA Redux with the LA Times’ David Zahniser, who covers City Hall (and is in my opinion one of the best reporters in Los Angeles).

Zahniser said that he hardly ever uses the word ‘reform,’ in his stories, although editors sometimes ad it in.

“‘Reform’ is just one person’s promotional catchphrase,” he said.

“So what are you calling it?” I asked.

“I would call it pension change,” he said. “Because it’s in the eye of the beholder, first of all. And secondly, you don’t know, for years out, what it turned out to be.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with Zahniser — pension change doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue —  and I’m not sure I agree now.  But his argument has stuck with me. And of course, nowhere is the question of how to name the various parties and proposals more pertinent than in reporting about education.

Good stories are centered around conflict. That’s the great thing about covering education right now. Public education in Los Angeles and much of the country is consumed by a series of debates between two ideological poles.

In simple form, one side is dominated by the teachers union and their ideological allies, such as Diane Ravitch. The other side, often described as “school reformers,” includes many big city mayors like Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker and Antonio Villaraigosa, and quite a few rich guys like Eli Broad and Casey Wasserman.

While most of those involved identify themselves as Democrats, the two sides are not dissimilar from political parties: they have their own factions, their own sources of funding, their own ideologies, their own electoral machines and of course, their own vicious attacks on the other side.

When covering national politics, reporters use words like ‘Democrats’ and ‘Republicans’ without controversy. Other words, like ‘liberal,’ used to be controversial, but are now general accepted as useful labels, as are ‘conservative,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘moderate,’ and so on.

But what words should education reporters be using?

It’s a question that has been debated among educators and journalists for a while now, with no clear conclusion.

For the most part, I have been using the word ‘reformers,’ but with some hesitation, and possibly even some guilt. Sometimes, I’ll put quotes around the word ‘reformer’, to suggest a certain amount of distance. Last week, when I was on KCRW, and I found myself using the words, “so-called reformers.” But that didn’t feel quite right either, as if I was suggesting that I didn’t think they were reformers.

When I spoke with LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy last year, he said he didn’t like being called a reformer, because he thought it was divisive.

(Perhaps the solution is to use Reformer with a capital ‘R,’ just to make it clear we’re talking about a specific set of ideas, much like ‘Conservatives’ are distinguished from ‘conservatives’.)

Finding words for the other side can be just as problematic. When the union says something, fine, it’s the union. But what if a like-minded person like Diane Ravitch or LAUSD School Board member Bennett Kayser says something? Is he a “union sympathizer?” Is he “pro-union?” Is he “anti-reform?”

That side would no doubt hate being called “anti-reform,” just like pro-life activists wouldn’t want to be called anti-abortion. That side would probably want to be called progressives. Former School Board candidate Robert Skeels often uses the term “social justice” when referring to his own ideology.

Reporters are often accused of having one bias or another, but more than anything, we just want to be able to write a sentence without agonizing over what words and labels to use for various people in a story. All labels are, by their very nature, reductive. But without them, communication would be next to impossible.

My sense is that the word ‘reformer’ is becoming generally accepted. Both the Daily News‘ Barbara Jones and the LA Times‘ Howard Blume use the word. But what do we call the other side? And what do if the reform ideology becomes entrenched within the public education system, and some new movement from outside seeks to upend it? What will call everybody then?

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