It has become fashionable for pundits to argue that fake news has created a post-truth America; however, mainstream media, in fact, carry the brunt of the responsibility because too often journalists are trapped in press-release journalism and traditional expectations of objectivity.
Evidence of this can be found in how the media routinely cover education and education reform—even when good journalists with good intentions seek to be objective and fair by covering a topic.
Paul Hyde’s Advocates tout the benefits of school choice (25 January 2017) represents the ultimate failure of covering what advocates claim instead of confronting whether or not those claims are credible.
Regularly, the public is bombarded with school choice advocacy and proposals that school choice can somehow address the historical and persistent problems we rightfully recognize in South Carolina’s public schools. These arguments are compelling for a public in the U.S. that believes in choice and idealizes parental choice.
But here is the problem: The evidence rejects that market forces (through vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, and even public school choice, which is in place in South Carolina’s Greenville county) are effective but indirect methods for education reform.
School choice is an ideological argument that exposes political cowardice (let the Invisible Hand do what political leaders refuse to do), and it ignores that public institutions should make choice unnecessary (think about why we do not privatize the judicial system, the police force, roads and highways).
First, the problems with our public schools are primarily strongly connected to large gaps in outcomes among identifiable groups of students by race, social class, special needs, and home languages.
All across South Carolina, for example, and notably along its Corridor of Shame, schools serving low-poverty populations have strong outcomes while schools burdened with high poverty and high percentages of students with special needs and English language learners have weak outcomes.
What we must acknowledge is first that struggling schools and students are not struggling because of a lack of choice, and then, all choice models for reform are indirect ways to make the changes that should be accomplished by public policy directly.
Here is the fact that political leaders are avoiding by abdicating their responsibilities to address inequity: Between 60-80% of measurable student outcomes are connected to students’ lives outside of school—home income, access to medical care, food and living security, and stable and well-paying jobs for the parents.
If public policy were to address these social inequities directly, student outcomes would improve with no in-school reform at all.
But our current schools also require direct reform, some of which could correct the negative consequences of choice—increasing segregation, creating unnecessary shuffling of student populations, diverting funds from public schools for charter and private schools that do not have better outcomes.
Too often, public school practices reflect and perpetuate the exact inequities in society that are overburdening our schools.
Instead of hoping that market forces create equity (and they will not), new direct policy should confront the following: vulnerable populations of students are assigned disproportionately new and un-/under-certified teachers, tracking and selective programs (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate) benefit advantaged students while vulnerable students are often barred, discipline practices and consequences perpetuate inequity, and too often school facilities and materials reflect the socioeconomic status of the community.
Ultimately, mainstream media failing to provide a critical response to school choice advocates allows yet more political cowardice.
School choice—from vouchers to charter schools to public school choice—over the past 20-30 years has never produced the miracles advocates promise. Despite public perception, charter schools and public schools do not have higher outcomes than public schools when adjusted for the characteristics of students served.
Types of schooling simply do not make a difference, but practices do—although no in-school practices have yet to overcome the influence of out-of-school influences beyond the scope of teachers and schools to control.
Allowing powerful people with vested interests to advocate for failed policy without any media, political, or public challenges is cheating our schools, our students, and our democracy.
The weight of evidence does not validate school choice advocacy, but more important than that, we know what needs to be reformed to insure better opportunities for all students.
We need politicians themselves to embrace choice, choosing direct action instead of continuing to hide behind the political cowardice of hoping parents-as-customers can force schools to accomplish the impossible.