Gallup reported in September 2016 (“Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low”) that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”
Clearly, reporters and editors need to be doing all they can to try to win back the trust of their customers. Thus it was surprising to learn that the editor of the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise is a founding member of a group working against the interest of some of his customers. In an April 4 news story announcing the group’s formation, the E-E's Nathan Thompson reports:
A group of concerned Bartlesville-area residents have started a grassroots effort on the current state of Oklahoma’s public education funding crisis.
Public Education Advocates for Kids—or PEAK—started in January with a core group of seven Bartlesville residents who wanted to improve public education, retain quality teachers and encourage Oklahoma legislators to properly fund schools. The founding members of PEAK are Keri Bostwick, Alison Clark, Examiner-Enterprise Editor Chris Day, Dan Droege, Vanessa Drummond, George Halkiades and Becky Olsen. …
PEAK’s key belief is public education is the fundamental driver of the state’s long-term economic prosperity, job creation and quality of life. To get there, the group supports increased funding for all state public schools, starting with significant pay raises for all teachers to be competitive with surrounding states. PEAK is strongly against using taxpayer funds to support private schools through the form of vouchers or education savings accounts. … The group also supports prudent tax increases to improve funding for quality education in the state, Droege said.
Credit: Saeed Sadeghi
Is it possible for the E-E’s editor to pick a side on policy disputes without compromising the newspaper’s impartiality and credibility? Perhaps. Readers certainly should give the E-E every opportunity to prove that it can report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. But readers need to be alert. For example, does the word “crisis” belong in the lede of a supposedly straight news story? According to data compiled from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System and provided by the state Department of Education, total education spending in Oklahoma, even when adjusted for inflation, is higher today ($6,695,978,193) than it was a decade ago ($6,115,624,776). Per-pupil spending is roughly flat (up slightly from $9,775 to $9,781). Does this constitute a “crisis”?
Many readers would answer with an emphatic yes and could make a compelling argument for why a crisis mentality is warranted. But others might say, “No, actually, it seems like $244,525 for a classroom of 25 kids should be plenty.” In short, a funding “crisis” is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not for reporters or editors to take sides.
In order to report education news “fully” and “fairly,” journalists must always remember that their job is to serve their readers—not to serve their sources or themselves. To that end, here are 10 story ideas I would respectfully urge the E-E to consider in the weeks and months ahead.
- Bartlesville has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent public school district. According to researchers at the George W. Bush Institute, the average student in Bartlesville is performing better in math than 64 percent of students in the United States and better than 53 percent of students in other developed economies. So if Oklahoma lawmakers created a universal school-choice program, how many students in the Bartlesville Public Schools would even feel the need to utilize it? How many would actually leave for a private school? E-E journalists should explore the take-up rates in other school-choice states and try to get a sense of what might happen in Bartlesville.
- The E-E recently quoted state Rep. Earl Sears as saying, “I personally don’t support a voucher program.” A logical journalistic follow-up question for Rep. Sears would be: “As you know, Oklahoma already has a voucher program—a voucher program that likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you. Will you introduce legislation to repeal it?”
- Oklahoma’s private-school voucher program is helping hearing-impaired students, autistic students, students seeking to overcome addiction, and many more. With two private schools in Bartlesville participating in the program, E-E journalists could likely find some interesting human-interest stories about local students.
- Bullycide (suicide as a result of being bullied) is a heartbreaking reality in Oklahoma and nationwide. Oklahoma’s private-school voucher program turned out to be a godsend for Phylicia and for Dylan, both of whom had considered suicide. Are there other troubled students who have been rescued by the voucher program? If so, E-E journalists should tell their stories.
- PEAK wants lawmakers to “properly” fund schools. E-E journalists should explore the question: What level of funding is “proper”? If Bartlesville’s per-pupil spending of $9,530 is not enough, then what is? Would $15,971 (Cushing) be enough? How about $17,552 (Stroud), $25,373 (Taloga), or $43,817 (Reydon)? The superintendent in Tahlequah goes so far as to say, “There has never been enough revenue for public education, and there never will be.” Does PEAK share that view? Do BPS officials? If not, at what dollar amount would BPS officials tell taxpayers, “Thank you. The funding level you have provided is now sufficient. If there are any problems remaining with the schools, we take responsibility for them.”?
- PEAK wants “significant pay raises” for all teachers, even if it means supporting “prudent” tax increases. In a recent report examining the cost (salary, benefits, and payroll taxes) per teacher in Oklahoma in 2016, researchers at the 1889 Institute found that the average cost to taxpayers is about $66,034. E-E journalists should do a story on the report and should ask some of these taxpayers: What tax hikes would be “prudent”?
- Oklahoma’s public education system now has more non-teachers than teachers. According to economist Benjamin Scafidi, if it weren’t for the non-teaching staff surge of the last two decades Oklahoma could have given each teacher a pay raise of more than $6,000. E-E journalists should take a look at staffing decisions in some local districts. For example, why did the non-teaching staff in Bartlesville and Nowata increase even as enrollment declined? In Dewey, why was the non-teaching staff increase more than three times greater than the increase in students?
- The National Education Association warned of a “teacher shortage” nearly a century ago—and we’ve been hearing about teacher shortages ever since. But two Oklahoma researchers have concluded that “overall, there is no teacher shortage. In fact, there may be a surplus.” Journalists—always on the lookout for “man bites dog” stories—should be eager to explore a finding like this which contradicts the prevailing wisdom. E-E journalists should talk to the researchers and also talk to public school officials who would take issue with the researchers’ conclusions.
- PEAK is “strongly against” vouchers and ESAs, but what do other citizens think about these sorts of private-school choice policies? A Gallup poll released last week found strong support nationally for the Trump-DeVos school choice proposal, and indeed over the last few years there have been at least eight public-opinion surveys asking Oklahomans their views on school choice. Using the latest Gallup poll as a news hook, the E-E should take a look at the public opinion survey research on school choice.
- PEAK wants significant pay raises for “all teachers”—presumably even the bad ones. But a 2015 SoonerPoll survey found that 58 percent of Oklahoma voters say “pay raises should be given based on the quality of each teacher’s work,” while 40 percent say “pay raises should be given to all teachers across the board.” E-E journalists should interview some Bartlesville taxpayers to see which they prefer.
Whether or not E-E journalists pursue any of these story ideas specifically, here’s hoping they will strive to report the education news fully, accurately, and fairly.
- PEAK indicated on April 3 that it wants to “stop the next tax cut.” With April 15 still fresh on people’s minds, E-E journalists should do a story on the proposed legislation. Some Bartians may agree with PEAK that our political leaders need more money to spend on the government-operated school system. However, considering that the average Oklahoman had to work the first 101 days of 2017 just to earn enough money to pay the federal, state, and local tax collectors, others may be in the mood for any tax cut they can get.
- PEAK opposes Senate Bill 393, the Oklahoma Science Education Act, which passed the Oklahoma Senate on March 22 by a vote of 34 to 10 and is now being considered in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. E-E journalists should do a story on the legislation (and even publish the bill itself as a sidebar so readers can judge for themselves). PEAK believes this “anti-science” legislation is “designed to discredit evolution and climate change” and could even (gasp!) “open the door to creationism.” But given what Americans think on these topics—and knowing that Bible Belt Okies are even more conservative than Americans as a whole—E-E journalists shouldn’t have any trouble finding interviewees who support the legislation.
- The Bartlesville school board voted unanimously to outsource the schools’ janitorial services, the E-E reports. “The current janitorial staff were being managed by the principals at each site, which Preston Birk, the district’s chief financial officer, said was ineffective. … 'We didn’t invent the wheel. There’s quite a few other districts larger than us and smaller than us that outsource custodial work,' Birk said. The move will save Bartlesville Public Schools $300,000 total savings in the 2017-2018 school year, but [superintendent Chuck] McCauley said he expects that number will grow.” E-E journalists should pursue some follow-up stories: If this move is so beneficial to taxpayers in 2017, why wasn’t it done in 2007 or 1997 or earlier? And if it makes fiscal sense to outsource custodial work, are there other services the school board could outsource?