Charter schools and journalistic ethics

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Natasha Levant, from her Facebook entry
Natasha Levant, from her Facebook entry

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ethicscode

11 comments

  1. Natasha Levant

    Good Afternoon Mr. Braun,
    For the record I Natasha Levant, am employed by Prudential Financial and Prudential only. My skills that I lend to my child’s school are strictly Volunteered!! Why? Because I believe in the vision of North Star being a Community School!!! And further more I am a parent first, and a advocate second. I pay my bills with a salary from Prudential and Prudential only but it sounds to me that you may need my services as well because after reading this so called blog, you failed to do your own research. I may not charge the school but I will definitely charge you my highest rate!! And I did not give you permission to use my photo, you have 1hour to remove my picture or I will use my right and resources to start legal action!!! Google me again if you think I am playing!!
    Be Blessed and enjoy your day!!
    Yours truly,
    Natasha Levant

    Bob Braun: Ms. Levant, you have a perfect right to write whatever you wish about yourself or North Star. The question is whether The Star-Ledger should have identified you as something more than a parent. On in the Linked-In profile, you posted–under “experience”–you wrote:

    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

    Someone, of course, took out that part of your resume–and you have a right to do that as well. But you can’t pretend it was never there. You may check the comments posted in response to the nj.com version of your op-ed and you will see others pointing out he same thing to you.

  2. Becca Fields

    A much needed exposure of the double standards and dubious ethics choices made by the Star Ledger editorial board. How many dots would it take to connect the paper and its power brokers directly to these charter school factories?

  3. Donna

    Clearly, a conflict of interest from Levant.

    Prudential is heavily, HEAVILY, “invested” and interested in the proliferation of charters, and Teacher’s Village, and TFA. It is disgusting. How do you fight them? Really is getter harder every day. Still, there are some who will believe the lies and rhetoric. Then there are the sane ones who see the truth, but it seems if we are not the minority, we are the poor who can’t do much about it but shine a light on it.

    Bob Braun: It was Prudential, along with Ray Chambers, and a few others who began the push to make Newark the charter capital of the nation. That’s why they found Cory Booker who came to Newark with almost the sole purpose of pushing for charters and vouchers. I disagree on one point: I don’t think Ms. Levant is in a conflict of interest. I think The Star-Ledger violated journalistic ethics by not pointing out she was more deeply invested in charters than being a parent.

  4. Kim alexander

    It doesn’t matter who is paying her she has her own voice. She has a right to what she feels helped her child.

    Bob Braun: I agree with you. It was the responsibility of the newspaper to identify her fully and clearly so readers could judge her credibility. MY argument is not with Ms. Levant, but with The Star-Ledger.

  5. Altorice Frazier

    Ms. Levant role is more than a parent at North Star. Yet that’s no issue, as an community involved individual, and parent of charter school children myself, I also have given time and energy to charter schools for no compensation . The investment I have put in these schools comes from the investment they put in my children.

  6. Frank Falcicchio

    Prudential was the first, the original, source of funding for everything connected to North Star Academy, going back to the 1970s. Mr. Braun, your investigative skills remain sharp. But, we also do not forget the charge you lead to bring what has resulted in this “pork barrel” known as public school ‘reform.’

    • Michael Maillaro

      This continues to be the “problem” with the reform movement. They constantly try to reshape the conversation by creating absurd straw men arguments. “Why shouldn’t Ms. Levant edify her son’s growth?” Of course, Ms. Levant should make every effort to make her child’s life better. I applaud her for that.

      BUT, like Bob Braun said, when you see an editorial that doesn’t give all the information about the writer, it does not allow the reader to make a fair assessment about any bias the writer MAY have. I am an employee of the Newark Teachers Union and also a parent of former Newark students. If I did an anti-charter piece and was only listed as “a parent of former Newark students,” it would be very disingenuous of me.

  7. Monique Taylor

    I wish more parents were involved in public schools like it’s required in charter schools. Just imagine if all parents who have child(ren) in charter schools invested their time and energy like they do with charter schools. But nope, that’ll never happen. Charter schools pick and choose who they want and let’s not forget the special needs children. I wonder how many parents were involved heavily with their child public school education like they are with charter schools? Parents are forced to volunteer or they will get into trouble. And quiet as it’s kept, charter schools still aren’t on suburban districts level. I don’t care if 98% of the teachers are white.

    Sincerly
    A Black Educator

  8. Pingback: Dear Reformies: You Got Nothing | Blue Jersey

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