Stephanie Simon has a significant article on transparency and advocacy in the education world at Politico (which inexplicably has hidden it behind their paywall). A couple of thoughts on the larger issues it points up.
First, there is an issue here. It’s not all pay to play or salacious and there is arguably too much focus on it at the expense of substance – but there is undeniably too little transparency in our sector. And simply putting who paid for something in a publication is not too much to ask. At Bellwether we have clear rules about both disclosure and editorial control on documents carrying our brand and what our team members can and can’t do. It’s just good operating procedure. Overall, it seems like the field got better about this for a few years but is now going the other way in the hothouse of the debate today.
Second, of course, if people want to pay for advocacy it doesn’t matter if it’s the unions or a foundation or an individual, it’s a protected activity and part of the process. We don’t do that kind of work at Bellwether but I don’t think this shouldn’t turn into a witch hunt on those that do on any side of the issues. But again, transparency is key. Who pays for something does not make it disqualifying. Hiding it is the problem.
Third, not all conflicts of interest are disqualifying. In fact, if you want to learn about something it’s a good idea to go to people who know what they’re talking about. When you talk to a union official or an investor you appreciate their vested interest but can also appreciate that they’re in a better position to know and understand some things than an arms-length observer. The same is true of various experts and consultants. It’s true of teachers and school principals. Everyone has an interest but can also offer valuable perspective. You don’t want to overstate it but in general people without some sort of conflicts of interest probably aren’t close enough to things to have the richest and most fine-grained insights and inferences. Again, sunlight is the way to go though, just get it out in the open.
Finally, transparency is only as useful as people are sensible and well-intentioned about consuming information and those aren’t necessarily terms you’d tie to our education debate these days. Better norms won’t solve the larger toxicity problem in the education debate, but are arguably a predicate.