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The fruitful alliance of Arne Duncan and Rupert Murdoch

The New York Post patted its own back today, hard, for helping the state renew the mayor’s control of the public schools. The surprising thing is that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined in, thanking the newspaper, owned by the ambitious Rupert Murdoch, for its “leadership” and “thoughtfulness.”

New York City newspapers have a proud tradition of waging campaigns both on and off the editorial page, and then congratulating themselves when they hit their marks. But having a cabinet member for a sitting president join the cheering is more unusual.

“I think that must be out of context, that Arne Duncan is giving the Post credit for mayoral control,” the president of the principals’ union, Ernest Logan, said when I called to ask his impression.

Richard Colvin, who directs the Hechinger Institute for education journalism at Columbia University, said he found the whole news story baffling. “It reads like nothing I’ve ever seen. It reads like the worst kind of back-patting, self-congratulatory press release that has no perspective whatsoever,” he said.

Duncan’s quote does illustrate a strange alliance that fought hard for mayoral control’s renewal, Murdoch and the secretary of education among them. In addition to running a series of news articles highlighting victories of mayoral control in the past seven years, Murdoch’s Post also published an aggressive slew of editorials mocking anyone who stood in the path of a full-throttled renewal of the mayor’s power. (Remember Randi Weingarten, puppet master?)

Murdoch also played a behind-the-scenes role in his position as co-chairman of the Partnership for New York City, a lobbying group that represents business interests. (The other co-chair is Lloyd Blankfein, the C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs.) The group kept a low profile during the mayoral control fight, but worked behind the scenes to broker a compromise between groups fighting over the law, including the city teachers union and the Bloomberg administration.

Duncan fought for mayoral control, too, and he often did so in the pages of the Post. It was in that newspaper that he first entered the local fight, offering an exclusive interview previewing remarks he made the next day at the Sheraton, where the National Action Network was holding a conference on education. Duncan then sat down with the paper’s editorial board, where he criticized a cut to charter schools by the state. Later, he penned a letter to a civic group that got into the nitty-gritty policy question of whether or not to give school board members fixed terms. (Like the Bloomberg administration and the Post, Duncan opposed them.)

While the efforts of the newspaper and the secretary probably did play a role in renewing mayoral control, the accuracy of the stories that the Post ran is arguable. The paper called the city’s racial achievement gap “the incredible shrinking race gap,” yet a recent New York Times story, a story I wrote in the New York Sun, and analysis by academic researchers suggests much more modest language is in order. The paper also wrote story after story about turnaround schools — without once profiling the schools that have remained failures despite mayoral control.

Not to be a Grinch, or even to argue that “balance” could have solved the problem. But is a little editorial independence so much to ask for?

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