Saturday, December 11, 2004

Nick Coleman responds to Maxfield controversy

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:42 PM |  

Below without editorial comment (or reformatting) is an email from Nick Coleman addressed to me with a CC to Pioneer Press Opinion Page Editor Art Coulson. My response, sent today, follows. [For those new to the controversy, a good place to start is here, and follow the links.]

Dear Craig Westover and Art Coulson: Where in my November 14 or Dec. 5 columns on the literacy problems at St. Paul's Maxfield School did I mention the word "textbooks"? Both columns were about the desperate effort to improve reading skills at Maxfield, and the fact that that effort has been hampered by a shortage of READING materials. The topic was not text books. It was LITERACY. Perhaps you should look into it, Westover. What Principal Zelma Wiley and Superintendent Pat Harvey have upbraided you for was your lazy attempt to exploit the situation to serve an anti-public school agenda (You couldn't even get off your duff to set foot inside a school 1.5 miles from your desk). All you did was hijack my columns to beat up on a school whose parents and neighbors were trying to help their school survive. This is kicking poor kids while they're down. Now you are covering your butt in your blog -- but not in the newspaper? Whassamatter? Too hot for you? -- because you got called out by Zelma Wiley. I will be addressing this in more detail. Yours, etc. Nick Coleman

My response.

Dear Mr. Coleman --

Given your past expressions of disdain for bloggers, I am somewhat flattered that you would be reading my blog and that you took the time to respond, however discourteously.

If you see it as relevant to parse the difference between “textbooks” and “books in the classroom,” then surely you will allow me to question where you found me kicking poor kids and allow me to parse what you have, misleadingly, characterized as an “anti-public school agenda.”

Let’s start with the latter point first.

I’ll grant you that your desk in Minneapolis is more than 1.5 miles from downtown St. Paul, but for one as interested in the education of the most vulnerable children in Minnesota as you profess to be, it would have been worth the trip to hear former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller speak about school choice.

Had you attended Mr. Fuller’s recent presentation (or if you read the positions you’re criticizing) you would understand that even well-intentioned people without a political agenda sometimes do not make the distinction between “public education,” which is a concept, and the system that delivers public education.

“Public education” is the concept that it is in our interest to educate all children, regardless of their families’ incomes. What makes education “public” is that it serves the public’s interest. School choice advocates are committed to that purpose, not to any specific institutional arrangement.

Furthermore, school choice advocates believe that when an educational institution, be it a government school, a charter school, a private school or a religious school, is not meeting the needs of any individual student, that student should have a actionable alternative. A “public education system” has a moral obligation to provide that alternative and make it actionable.

What you should immediately pick up on is that the well-to-do people who send their children to private and religious schools and those who select schools by choosing to live in districts with the better programs have such choice already. Who doesn’t have a choice in education? Low-income kids in inner city schools -- the very kids that for some unfathomable reason the education establishment insists must stay in schools that are fighting for “survival.”

Mr. Fuller is a bit more aggressive on this point than I would be, but then as a black man who has bled to free minority kids from failing government schools for the better part of his life, he is entitled to a little more anger than white guys acting out of redemptive liberalism. He writes --

“We have to ask why people do not want low-income parents to have choice. The hypocrisy on this point is phenomenal. We have teachers teaching in schools that they would never put their own children in and then demanding that somebody else’s children stay there. We have public school teachers putting their own children in private schools. We have leaders in Congress pontificating against choice who have their own children in private schools. The argument always comes down to ‘If we let these poor parents out, it will destroy the system.” I have a question: Is it about the system, or is it about the parents and the children?”

In my column and several places on my blog and in several forms, I have asked the question -- Is it ethical for "public" education to deny children and parents the choice of a school -- “public” or private, secular or religious -- that meets their needs regardless of their economic situation? Frankly, Mr. Coleman, that question is a challenge to those whose views you champion, and as yet, no one has addressed it.

As Art is painfully aware, I am dying to carry on this dialogue in the newspaper. Art is a more judicious man than I and more journalistically cognizant. Therefore, rightly the call is his. However, any response I might make would be along the lines of that written above. I care too much about education and the kids you claim I am kicking (and I am too aware of the cost of newsprint to waste it as mere floor covering) for the kind of pissing contest you seem intent on initiating. Something I learned in public school was that abusive
argumentum ad hominem is not only an informal logical fallacy, it is strikingly unprofessional.

I look forward to your “addressing this in more detail,” but even more so to the inevitable blogosphere response.


Craig Westover
Okay -- one comment. I did have a Dan Rather-inspired moment when I doubled checked that the return was a Star Tribune address. The lack of common courtesy and slap-dash nature of the e-mail gave me pause to think it might be a hoax. For the sake of journalism, I almost hope that it is.


Bogus Gold checks in on the controversy

So does Jo's Attic and What If? Thanks to all for the support.

UPDATE: Powerline comments.