Today The Star-Ledger published an op-ed column by a woman identified as Natasha Levant in which she credited the school her son attends, the North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, for “changing” her son’s life and “saving” him. The newspaper described her only as “a resident of Newark and mother of five.”
What the newspaper did not do is identify her as someone who works for the same charter school chain. On her Linked In site–which she edited shortly after I originally published this blog–Levant included in her work experience a variety of jobs she performs for North Star. In a message to me, she denies she is paid to do those jobs and says she does them as a volunteer.
On the Linked-In site she changed, this is how Levant originally described her experience:
Event Coordinator (Consultant)
Uncommon Schools North Star Academy Charter School
August 2013-Present (2 years 5 months).
- Assists the Community Engagement Director in preparation of budgets and proposals, prepares necessary reports to track project meeting progress including rooming lists, function space grids, meeting evaluations and etc.
- Assists Community Engagement Director with speaker availability including confirming availability, coordination of travel arrangements.
- Work with selected vendors on food and gift selection and other program accessories.
- Conducts research on various venues and locations for space availability to accommodate planned events
Paid or not, censored Linked-In site or not, Levant has a job working for the very school she is using the pages of The Star-Ledger to promote. She is free, of course, to do that–nothing at all illegal about it.
The question is whether The Star-Ledger should have identified her as someone more than just a parent.
Levant also is employed by the Prudential Insurance Company as an assistant to the media director. Prudential is a financial supporter of North Star and its chief investment officer, Scott Sleyster, sits on the school’s trustee board.
The Society of Professional Journalists has published an ethics code in which it states:
“Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”
The Star-Ledger did not clearly identify the source of the article it published Sunday under Levant’s byline.
The Star-Ledger repeatedly publishes editorials supporting charter schools, privately-operated but publicly-funded schools that, even according to supporters, drain money away from the traditional public schools in Newark. In October, it specifically editorialized against legislation that would impose a moratorium on the growth of charter schools until a study could be made of their impact on traditional public schools; that is the same position taken by Levant in her article.
Tomorrow, The Star-Ledger undoubtedly will be covering the pro-charter lobbying effort promoted by Levant’s article. One hopes, by then, that it will reveal the true nature of its contributor today and apologize for the ethical lapse.
In her op-ed, Levant also took sides in a number of hotly controverted issues. North Star has been accused of expelling students with disturbing frequency. North Star, like other charters, has been accused of failing to take its share of students with disabilities. Levant depicted herself merely as a parent who has personal knowledge of these issues.
“I’ve heard people who are just not knowledgeable swear up and down that charter schools take only the best kids or encourage the troublemakers or kids with special needs to leave,” she writes, denying that is true.
“My son is the poster kid of the child that people say doesn’t exist in charter schools.”
North Star, incidentally, is about to build a school on a site once owned by The Star-Ledger. Although the property had been sold earlier to a developer who sold it to North Star, the newspaper risks an appearance of conflict by not mentioning this–and by holding itself out as such a passionate supporter of charter schools that it does not mention the true background of an op-ed contributor.
The digital version of Levant’s piece contains photographs of pro- and anti-North Star demonstrators but does not identify which is which, creating a question in readers’ minds about the extent of the school’s support.