What public radio and television can teach us about public education

In this week’s Washington Post, Laura R. Walker, president and chief executive of New York Public Radio, and Jaclyn Sallee, president and chief executive officer of Alaska-based Kohanic Broadcast Corporation, defended taxpayer-funded journalism. According to Walker and Sallee, the federal government currently allocates $430 million to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn provides “financial support for locally owned and operated public radio and television stations, and acts as a journalistic firewall between the government that provides this funding and the public media journalism it funds.”

Given the success of public radio and television and the growing criticisms of school boards, the governance and management structure of publicly funded media may be a model publicly funded education should consider emulating.

The CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation, as are the 1,300 locally owned radio and TV stations it funds. The journalists and other staff working in these 1,300 publicly funded radio and TV stations are not government employees. This independence is critical to these journalists’ effectiveness and allows public broadcasting to be, as Walker and Sallee observed, among “the most trusted news sources anywhere,” despite being government funded.

If publicly funded education were to adopt the publicly funded media governance model, then local school boards could fulfill the CPB function. They would be private, nonprofit corporations receiving public funds and distributing these funds to locally owned and operated schools. Teachers and other school employees would not be government employees and would be empowered to use their best professional judgment without undue political influence. Similar to what CPB provides to public journalists, schools boards would provide an educational firewall between government and publicly-funded educators.

Educational accountability under a public media governance model would be less regulatory and more customer-driven. On its website the CPB proudly proclaims that, “Since 1968, CPB has been the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.” If the federal and state governments would grant this same stewardship authority to CPB-type school boards, rank and file educators would have greater freedom to be entrepreneurial and innovate. Of course, this lessening of direct government control assumes the primary customers of publicly funded education – the families – would have the same rights to choose providers as the customers of public and privately funded media do today.

I don’t know why we govern publicly funded education so differently from publicly funded media, but I have never heard anyone argue that the journalism at NPR and PBS would improve if these journalists all became government employees. So if the independence of journalists is necessary for quality public journalism, perhaps the independence of educators is necessary for quality public education.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.