Saturday, February 28, 2015

Accountability in education reporting, policy

I've written previously that I don’t believe media bias is always nefarious, or even intentional. Just as a fish doesn’t swim around all day wondering how he can manage to stay wet, reporters don’t wake up every day asking themselves how they can stick it to conservatives. A fish doesn’t realize he’s wet, and many journalists don’t realize that their J-school training and subsequent existence in a center-left newsroom bubble have conditioned them to construct narrative frameworks one way and not another.

In any case, conservatives are right to be wary of education reporting from the Tulsa World. (I refer you, for example, to my piece “Liberal newspapers and ‘controversial’ conservatives.”). Consider this recent reporting from Tulsa World staff writer Randy Krehbiel:
On a tie vote, the House Common Education Committee turned down a measure to require private schools receiving public money to comply with the same financial reporting mandates as public schools.

Author Katie Henke, R-Tulsa, said her bill would “level the playing field.”

“If you take public dollars, you have to play by the same rules (as public schools),” Henke said.

Currently, the bill would only apply to the approximately 400 recipients of the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship program for children with special needs. In view of pending Senate legislation paving the way for school vouchers, however, the issue could have much broader implications.

School choice advocates attacked Henke’s bill, saying it would undercut private schools by making them comply with the same financial reporting as public schools.

“The reason private schools work so well, and they do work well; and the reason home schooling works so well, and it does work well, is that they are free,” said Rep. Chuck Strohm, R-Jenks. “They are living the American Dream free of the shackles public schools are required to operate under.”

Strohm, who received substantial support from a school choice group in last year’s election, said private schools should not be subject to requirements as public schools because private school parents are “more engaged” and “know what’s going on” in their schools.

Most of the parents in Rep. Strohm’s legislative district send their children to public schools. They were perhaps insulted to learn that their representative said private-school parents are more engaged than public-school parents.

State Rep. Chuck Strohm
As it turns out, Rep. Strohm didn't say that. “I can tell you private school parents are very engaged,” Rep. Strohm actually said. “I won’t say that they are more engaged than public school parents [emphasis added], but I would say that the parents in private schools are extremely engaged.”

The Tulsa World subsequently issued a correction.

Two more quick observations on the story. First, Mr. Krehbiel mentioned “pending Senate legislation paving the way for school vouchers.” In reality, the pending legislation creates education savings accounts (ESAs). Now granted, various private-school-choice policy mechanisms (vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, ESAs, individual tax credits, and so on) have much in common. And I do understand the challenge of writing for a general audience, especially on deadline. Sometimes it’s easier to use a shorthand term rather than to get bogged down in technicalities. Still, I think readers deserve more clarity. A reporter can certainly explain that ESAs are similar to vouchers, but he should call them ESAs.

Second, Mr. Krehbiel reports that Rep. Strohm “received substantial support from a school choice group in last year’s election.” True enough, and relevant to the story. But why no mention of where Rep. Henke or the bill’s other supporters received their support? Why is one relevant and not the other?

Even though the Tulsa World endorsed Rep. Strohm’s opponent, I am proceeding on the assumption that Mr. Krehbiel was doing his best to be fair. (That has been OCPA's experience with him in the past.) And if that’s not the case, it’s likely to backfire anyway. Just as lefty reporters’ ham-fisted gotcha journalism has helped propel Scott Walker to the top of the GOP presidential field, Rep. Strohm probably doesn’t mind being mentioned in the same story with vouchers, given that likely voters in the Tulsa metro favor them by a margin of 56 percent to 43 percent (according to the Tulsa World’s own pollster).


But enough about the journalism. Let’s look at the merits of the policy argument that private schools receiving public dollars need to be accountable just as public schools are accountable. Patrick McGuigan, who teaches at a public charter school in Oklahoma City, observes:

Eddie Evans of Youth Services of Tulsa recently remarked, “We’ve got kids in 11th and 12th grade who can't read at a third-grade level. How’d they get there?" Rev. Donald Tyler, an African-American preacher in Tulsa, is also on record saying “I have kids in my church who have graduated who can't read.”

McGuigan asks: In what sense are public schools “accountable”? Have the ineffective Tulsa teachers and administrators been fired? Have taxpayers gotten their money back? When this educational malpractice continues year after year, how can people continue to claim with a straight face that public schools are “accountable”? Policymakers need to face the hard truth that "rules" and "regulations" are not synonymous with "accountability."

Private schools participating in school-choice programs are already subject to certain forms of bureaucratic accountability. But is this necessary? Dr. Jay P. Greene (Ph.D. in political science, Harvard University) argues that “the oft-repeated claim that state funding requires accountability to the state is an obviously shallow and false political slogan rather than a well-considered policy view.” After all,

Most state-funded programs require no formal accountability to the state and instead rely primarily on the self-interest of the recipients to use the funds wisely. For example, the largest domestic program, social security, is designed to prevent seniors from lacking basic resources for housing, food, or clothing. But we don’t demand that seniors account for the use of their social security checks. They could blow it at the casino if they want. We’re just counting on the fact that most would have the good sense to make sure that their basic needs are covered first.

Even in the area of education, most government programs require no formal accountability. Pell Grants, Stafford Loans, and the Daycare Tuition Tax Credit do not require state testing for people using those funds. We just trust that the public purpose of subsidizing education will be served by people pursuing their own interests. Anyone who declares that state funding requires state accountability obviously hasn’t thought about this for more than 10 seconds.

I’m often told that conservatives are running the legislative and executive branches of Oklahoma’s government. If that's true, and if they want all schools to “play by the same rules,” wouldn’t the conservative instinct be to eliminate rules for public schools rather than to add rules for private schools? If the goal is to level the playing field, then let’s free the public schools from their shackles.

1 comment:

fred of Allen said...

TLDR; Your first paragraph, shorter version: "Facts have a liberal bias."