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The Seventy Four, founded by controversial advocate, takes over LA School Report

The Seventy Four, an organization whose co-founder is a controversial education advocate, has taken over LA School Report, a website covering the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The organization's name is a reference to 74 million students attending public schools in the United States. The site was co-founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who is part of a lawsuit seeking to overturn tenure protections for teachers in New York.

The group’s entry into Los Angeles has alarmed union leaders and some supporters of traditional public education. They say it could undermine trust in the reporting of education controversies. They had expressed similar concerns when The Times recently accepted outside funding to supplement its education coverage.

The Seventy Four, based in New York City, describes itself as a nonpartisan news site with the mission of exposing an education system “in crisis…to challenge the status quo, expose corruption and inequality, and champion the heroes who bring positive change to our schools.”

The group's funders include a roster of charter school supporters, such as the Walton Family Foundation, the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Critics call the Seventy Four an advocacy effort on behalf of a pro-charter school, anti-union agenda. The organization, critics say, uses opinion pieces and reported stories to promote charter schools and to find fault with traditional campuses and teachers unions.

Not so, said co-founder and Chief Executive Romy Drucker.

“We try to highlight what’s working,” Drucker said. “Part of the mission also is highlighting what’s broken and needs to be fixed and highlighting the solutions.”

No type of effective school is favored; no type of ineffective school is spared, said Drucker, who had been a top New York City schools official under former Chancellor Joel Klein.

Klein is closely associated with advocates who believe that school systems should be run more like successful businesses.

Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Most are nonunion.

Charter school growth has become a flash point in Los Angeles, which has the most students enrolled in charters, about 101,000, of any school system in the nation.

A confidential document, obtained last year by The Times, laid out a plan, spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, to more than double the number of local charters, pulling in half the district enrollment over the next eight years. Potential funders included the Walton Family Foundation, which was set up by the heirs to the Walmart fortune.

That plan, were it to go forward, could push the nation’s second-largest school system into insolvency, according to an independent panel of experts.

“Is there a connection between the Seventy Four’s takeover of LA School Report and the Broad-Walmart plan to privatize LAUSD schools? Of course there is,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

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Broad is not listed as a funder on the Seventy Four's website.

“Campbell Brown is not about fair coverage," Caputo-Pearl said. "She is about ‘reform,’ which is often a code word for criticizing teachers and advocating that public schools get turned into charter corporations.”

Drucker, of the Seventy Four, said that its news stories are fair and fully reported and should not be confused with opinion pieces, including those by Brown.

LA School Report owner and founder Jamie Alter Lynton launched the site three years ago during the run-up to school board elections. She had been a campaign contributor to a slate of candidates backed by corporate-style reform advocates, but said she directed her editors to play no favorites.

“From the beginning there was a lot of hand-wringing about whether my personal views would be imposed on the readers of the LA School Report,” she said Monday. “We worked very hard to cover this space with an eye toward what is good for kids--not this war between the adults, the reformers and the union, which is such a narrow way of looking at these issues.”

Not everyone was persuaded, but school board President Steve Zimmer, a union ally, said he came to believe the goal of editor Michael Janofsky was to provide balanced coverage. So did Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

"LA School Report has been a legitimate and credible news organization,” Weingarten said. “The 74 million is not.”

Zimmer linked the acquisition to what he characterized as a pattern of wealthy partisans trying to control the media message, including at The Times, which has received funding from Broad and others to increase education coverage.

“Truth itself, as it relates to public education in Los Angeles, will be filtered through an orthodox reform lens at every turn,” said Zimmer in an email to Janofsky, who was replaced as editor of LA School Report by Laura Greanias, a former Times editor who recently worked as city editor for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Janofsky said Monday that he declined to stay with LA School Report once he was told another editor had been installed.

Lynton said she had little choice but to find a partner if the school report was to survive. Until now, she has put up the money herself, she said.

The transaction involved no money; instead, the Seventy Four, with its $4-million annual budget, absorbed the school report and its staff — an editor and two reporters.

The Seventy Four employs 11 staff members in its New York City bureau, has one reporter in Washington, D.C., and also relies on about two dozen regular contributors across the country, Drucker said.

Lynton would not disclose readership numbers but said the L.A. publication would improve with the added resources of the Seventy Four. Lynton will be joining the governing board of the Seventy Four, which is organized as a nonprofit.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume 

Editor’s note: Education Matters receives funding from a number of foundations, including one mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, the Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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