Ed News outlet opens in Idaho

By John Miller

The Idaho Capitol is due to be populated by new reporters this session, writing for an education news website funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

The website, which comes in the wake of voters’ defeat of public schools chief Tom Luna’s education reforms, is being coordinated through Boise State University’s Idaho Leads Project, a program bankrolled by the Albertson Foundation to focus on strengthening leadership capacity in Idaho’s K-12 schools.

There’s a familiar face behind the project: Jennifer Swindell, a former longtime reporter and editor at the Idaho Statesman who is now the Idaho Leads Project’s communication director.

Swindell said she was in the process of hiring two staffers to cover education issues at the Capitol starting in the 2013 session; not long after, she announced the hiring of Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert and Idaho Falls Post Register statehouse reporter Clark Corbin, both of whom will start Jan. 21.

“It’s going to be a forum we can dedicate to public education news,” Swindell said. “In our work with the Leads Project, we’ve heard there’s a need for that.”

This isn’t the first non-traditional news organization in the Idaho Capitol. Idaho Reporter, funded by the free-market think tank Idaho Freedom Foundation, has been in the statehouse for several years.

Idaho Education News, whose website will be www.idahoednews.org, will be modeled after a similar education-linked reporting project in Colorado that’s funded by the Gates Family Foundation, among other groups.

There, Education News Colorado bills itself as the only news service “devoted to continuing, in-depth coverage of education policymaking in the legislature and state government and to comprehensive coverage and serious analysis of such issues as school choice, accountability and education reform.”

Swindell said she’s traveled to Denver to meet with its leaders, to glean ideas amid the scramble to get her site off the ground ahead of the Legislature’s Jan. 7 start.

“We’re fortunate to use their experience, sharing their experiences with us,” she said. “We’re not starting completely from scratch.”

In addition to original reporting about education legislation and policy by its reporters, the Idaho web site will also include areas for columns from experts and others about topics related to improving schools and helping students in Idaho, she said.

There will be opportunities for readers to post comments, though Swindell hopes one important requirement will help to elevate the tone of feedback above the standard fare offered by anonymous posters on many newspaper website: Anybody wishing to weigh in must also provide their first and last names.

BSU’s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies got an 18-month, $3.85 million grant from the Albertson Foundation to start the Idaho Leads Project; the addition of this website project has resulted in another $100,000 contribution from the Boise-based foundation.

The Albertson Foundation and its leaders are active players in education policy and politics in Idaho.

For instance, after Luna introduced his proposed overhaul in 2011, the foundation ran supportive advertisements including in Idaho newspapers. The Albertson Foundation has also contributed significant sums to promote nontraditional schools in Idaho, including charter and virtual schools.

In addition, Joe B. Scott, the chairman of the foundation board and a grandson of the supermarket founder, contributed $250,000 ahead of the Nov. 6 election to a political action committee that ran campaign advertisements promoting Luna’s overhaul.

Swindell said precautions have been taken to ensure the editorial independence of Idaho Education News.

Neither members of the Albertson Foundation board nor its staff will be allowed to intervene in its editorial policy or the coverage decisions of the website’s reporters, she said. In addition, the site won’t sell advertising.

She said content from the site will be offered to news outlets across Idaho, for use for free, in an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible.

“We’re existing to help make Idaho citizens more informed and more involved in the future of our kids,” Swindell said. “For BSU and the Albertson Foundation, this is so important, they’re willing to make a pretty big investment.”