By Michael Miner
Vallas Blasts Catalyst
Since storming into the public school system in 1995 and turning it upside down, Paul Vallas has made all the necessary enemies. Now he's working on the unnecessary ones. Vallas counts dropout rates one way--which shows the problem getting better. Catalyst counts them another way--which doesn't. Reasonable people often agree to disagree. Not Vallas.
"Your June issue of Catalyst has deliberately ignored, distorted and misused facts and statistics to create a false picture of the dropout problem," begins the letter from the CEO of the public schools to the founding editor of the journal created by the Community Renewal Society and the MacArthur Foundation ten years ago to monitor school reform.
Vallas continued, "You claim that the high school dropout rate is 'climbing' when you know perfectly well it has actually been declining in our general high schools." He went on to accuse Catalyst of accusing but overlooking, of ignoring and not acknowledging, of contradicting itself. And that was just paragraph two. The third paragraph asserted that the Catalyst reporter "knew and understood the data, but chose instead to pen an unwarranted and false attack." The fourth accused Catalyst of an "apparent editorial bias against the current administration." Vallas continued for five pages in this vein, and the nearest the letter came to striking a conciliatory note was its very last sentence, in which Vallas said he was enclosing various recent reports "to help you get back on track."
Because Catalyst doesn't publish between June and September, the Vallas screed hasn't appeared in print. In publishing's age of innocence, when noisy outbursts were separated by voids of silence, Vallas's letter would have remained private all summer and possibly been water over the dam by fall. But Catalyst now has a robust Web site to maintain. The magazine held the letter two weeks while editor Linda Lenz composed a reply, but since mid-July their argument has been accessible on-line. It's the new way of the world. Print is what no one waits for anymore; it's becoming archival, something journalists produce after the fact so subscribers will have something for their files.
Lenz--whom I've heard praise Vallas in lavish terms--answered him with a point-by-point rebuttal and an editorial. She began by discussing methodology: "The dropout rates that Mr. Vallas wanted us to use are those published in the annual Illinois school report cards, which by law provide data only on regular schools, not special or alternate schools." The problem, according to Lenz, is that this method disregards students who transfer from regular to special or alternative schools and then drop out of those. So she chose a method that counts everybody.
The editorial reminded Vallas of the praise and credit he's received from Catalyst in issues past, acknowledged that the magazine is more critical of his regime than the mass media are, and argued that this is because it watches the schools more closely than they do, provides skeptics with a forum for their two cents worth, and considers advocacy a part of its mission. "It's hard to get a clear-eyed discussion going on pros and cons, successes and failures," Lenz observed, "when Mr. Vallas challenges the motivations of people who criticize or advocate alternatives, casting them as the enemy."
Vallas has clearly cast Catalyst as that. His letter wasn't impetuous, and he regrets nothing. When the June issue came out he tracked Lenz down in Cleveland and bawled her out over the phone. A letter's coming, Lenz says he told her. "Print the whole letter." It took three weeks to arrive.
A month later, Vallas still gets steamed thinking about what Catalyst wrote. "Let's face facts here," he says. "Catalyst is part of the first school reform movement. They have a vested interest in the status quo. The reality of the matter is you had a whole industry emerge out of the first school reform movement in 1988--a whole cottage industry. Foundations handed out almost $60 million in grants in the name of school reform, and between 1988 and 1995 there wasn't much to show for it. Groups like Catalyst basically embraced this notion that all problems could be solved through radical decentralization--let a thousand flowers bloom. And do you know what happened? Nothing happened. So ideologically Catalyst has always been threatened by the success the schools have experienced since the mayor took responsibility and moved toward standards, moved toward accountability, moved toward a board-directed support program.
"This was the last issue of Catalyst before summer. There's absolutely no reference to academic improvement. We gave Catalyst enormous, just unlimited access. We spent unlimited time with them. So what they did was they used the state's graph that shows a decrease in the dropout rate, and they were not satisfied with that and decided to recalculate the dropout rate by using alternative schools--privatized alternative schools we don't even run. They decided to compare apples to oranges to support their thesis that cracking down on truancy and tougher standards somehow increases the dropout rate. The most blatant manipulation--most blatant manipulation!--was the recalculation of the dropout data.
"Even when Catalyst tries to write fair articles," Vallas mused, "the headline reflects their ideological predisposition. People are paying less and less attention to Catalyst--I think that's what troubles them. When I came in, it was Catalyst, Catalyst, Catalyst. And Designs for Change was all over the place. These groups were part of the decision-making process. We had to run things by these groups. We were expected to meet with these groups. They've become marginalized. Catalyst has become marginalized. I think this bugs them."
I passed these comments along to Lenz, who responded by E-mail. "The bottom line is that we uncovered a problem that people in the schools know about, that people in Mr. Vallas's own administration have commented on and that the best available data support. As for our supposedly being interested in the status quo, Mr. Vallas is doing what politicians often do when confronted with results they don't want to acknowledge publicly, muddy up the messenger....While you wouldn't guess it from Mr. Vallas's comments, six of the 10 stories we did on dropouts in our June issue reflected very positively on what this administration is doing."
Over the phone Lenz tells me, "In the past he's called us with similar complaints of a similar tenor. This is the first time he's decided to basically go public with it."
Vallas might have gone even more public if the dailies paid closer attention to Web sites as a source of news. Only the Sun-Times reported on Catalyst's June issue, and neither paper has noted what's happened since. But times are bound to change. "I think on-line is spectacular," says Lenz, "because you can keep it going and expand what you do. We posted school-by-school dropout data on-line that we couldn't get in the paper. We love it."
If you want to grow old gracefully, don't work for a newspaper. "There are few who stay in," says Dan Lehmann, a Sun-Times reporter since 1983. "And those who do, by my experience, end up angry, cynical old men." So Lehmann has decided to get while the getting's good. "I want to try something where my work is respected and my presence is welcomed," he said after submitting his resignation this week. "I'm 48 years old. If I'm going to strike out on a different career path it's time I do that now."
Lehmann, who covers the criminal courts for the Sun-Times and before that worked nights for years, has every reason to feel unwelcome. Besides his years of service--which in the eyes of Young Turks and bosses mark a newspaperman as old, slow, overpaid, and unambitious--there's his chairmanship of the Sun-Times unit of the Newspaper Guild, the outfit editor Nigel Wade dismissed in a recent staff memo as a "private business run to benefit the few tired organizers who control it."
For the time being, vice chair Charles Nicodemus will run the Sun-Times unit. "People step up," Lehmann said. "Whatever might be thought about the guild at this paper, it does enjoy the support of the people."
He's going to work as the public information officer for the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. No federal court in the country but the Supreme Court had a full-time PIO until a two-year pilot program was launched last January in Chicago's district court and in Boston's and New Orleans's appellate courts. Lehmann was a finalist for the Chicago job, which was given to Christopher Allen. After Allen died last month of cancer, chief judge Marvin Aspen asked Lehmann if he was still interested.
"These are more than 20 judges who rule on everything from constitutional issues to huge consumer-affairs issues, and most people don't have a clue how they do it or why," Lehmann says. "Do these guys want to be better appreciated? Sure. Why not? I want to be better appreciated for why I do my job as well."
Newspapers aren't what they used to be, he's concluded. "Generally newspapers don't do many of the tough stories and consistent reporting that was done even a decade ago. They've found easier, simpler ways and downscaled ways of trying to hold an audience. I understand the economics, but that doesn't mean I buy into the notion that less is more."
There were 345 members at the Sun-Times guild unit when Lehmann joined the paper. Today there are 200.
Disappearing Inc.sters Space
Last February the Tribune surprised Teresa Wiltz by assigning her to "Inc." with Ellen Warren. Gossip wasn't the kind of journalism she'd expected to do or believed herself uniquely suited for. It didn't turn out to be easy either. "It's a six-day-a-week column," she says. "It's a column that never takes a break." She allows there's a plus side: "I got to meet some pretty amazing people I probably wouldn't have had much access to. I got to talk to Salman Rushdie, Germaine Greer....That was fun."
So she's not complaining about "Inc." She's also not doing it any longer. On July 15, mysteriously writing solo, Warren wished Wiltz good-bye and good luck in "new challenges in Washington, D.C." It turns out Wiltz had just quit not only the column but the Tribune to cover the arts for the Washington Post.
A doctor's daughter, Wiltz grew up dancing. She studied drama and English at Dartmouth, graduated in 1983, and joined a contemporary dance company in New York City. "Competition is 300 people auditioning for one spot in a dance company," she says. "After screaming dance teachers and living on ramen for three years, journalism is pretty easy by comparison."
Wiltz goes on, "I feel dancing kind of robbed me of my youth. I turned 22, and I was depressed." She quit dance at 26 because "I wanted to write. I wanted to use my brain." She quit the Tribune at 38 for not entirely dissimilar reasons.
"I got a lot out of being at the Tribune, but it's time to go," she says. "My heart's in doing longer stuff." At the Post she'll be writing about theater, dance, music--"whatever strikes my fancy."
Meanwhile, Warren goes it alone with "Inc.," though former Inc.ster Judy Hevrdejs is helping. Warren says she isn't sure whether or when the Tribune will find her another partner.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eric Werner/Nathan Mandell.