Changing The Story? The Decision To Edit A Hotbutton Post For Clarity

Chris Barbic takes the podium at a forum on charter schools. The Achievement School District superintendent's comments have taken on a life of their own after being paraphrased and directly reported by WPLN. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Chris Barbic takes the podium at a forum on charter schools. The Achievement School District superintendent’s comments have taken on a life of their own after being paraphrased and directly reported by WPLN. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Never has revised wording on WPLN’s website been so closely scrutinized. So we figured it was worth explaining how a paraphrase of Achievement School District chief Chris Barbic went from saying he accepted charter school segregation to saying he acknowledged its existence.

Last week, Barbic sat on a panel with other charter school experts. The forum was hosted by Nashville’s League of Women Voters on the Lipscomb University campus. The audience included MNPS school board members, a few state legislators and other education insiders.

“We gotta keep our eye on diversity,” said Alan Coverstone, who oversees charter schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. He was responding to a question from the audience about whether charter schools were carving out “niches,” where “high achievers,” low-income minorities and English language go to separate schools.

Coverstone didn’t get into specifics, but he insinuated (here we are paraphrasing again) that charter schools need to make an effort to have multiple races and classes represented.

“There are critical masses of backgrounds and groups that need to be represented so that there can be an understanding across different groups, so that people learn to interact with one another and so that we can be successful at building schools that are successful.”

Then Barbic jumped in.

“This may be where Alan and I differ a bit,” he said.

“I mean, absolutely diversity is important. But the fact is schools reflect the neighborhood. Nashville is not a diverse city. This idea of living in these mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods across the city is a great goal. It’s not reality. To talk about charters as segregating the population, like Art (Fuller, head of Knowledge Academy in the old Hickory Hollow mall) said, charters are representations of the community.

“So I think you’ve got to be about quality. Yes we want diversity but I just think we got to be honest about the situation and speak honestly about race and class, which goes way beyond the power of a school and not start to throw charters into a place where really they’re not responsible for the neighborhood demographic patterns of Nashville over the last 100 years.”

This comment sparked audible groans. So we followed up with Barbic afterward. We’ve posted the relevant section of that interview. He never said segregation in charter schools is “acceptable.” That was our word. But he did suggest (not word for word) that charters shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to keep schools from being segregated.

The Problem With ‘Acceptable’

Tuesday morning, after the story aired on the radio and published online, we received an email and subsequent call from Barbic’s chief of staff, Elliot Smalley. In a very polite way, he complimented the story and said diversity in charter schools is an important topic. Smalley said he could see how we would characterize his boss as accepting some segregation in charter schools. But he doesn’t think it’s acceptable, Smalley said.

Barbic’s point, Smalley said, is that schools of all kinds end up being segregated by race and class. So to expect charters to go above and beyond is unfair. “Acceptable” makes it sound like Barbic condones the inherent divide, and we get that distinction.

Unlike some people who call us asking for tweaks to a story, Elliot did not suggest an alternative. He simply made his point and asked that we reconsider the word “acceptable.” So we did, particularly since many of Barbic’s critics had begun using the line as if it were a direct quote, not a reporter’s characterization.

As reporters, we drone on and on about how we wish public officials would be more open and honest instead of speaking as if they’re at a press conference every time a microphone is on. In that way, Barbic’s candor is a breath of fresh air.

But openness has its drawbacks. It becomes much easier for something to be taken out of context or twisted to mean something that was never intended. We’d rather encourage more openness by going through the uncomfortable process of making a very public revision.

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