Sunday, January 02, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Explain yourself, Westover

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:55 PM |  

Wow! It's a good thing I rang in the new year at an undisclosed secret location. I come back and find that Pioneer Press letter writer Gary Thompson, borrowing a page from Nick Coleman's Philosophy of Reasonable Discourse, challenges “Explain yourself, Westover,” meaning that having responded to Nick Coleman's misrepresentations, I now must address his.

To make sure I get the point, Mr. Thompson also sent me an e-mail saying "Part of the ball is in your court now!” Reading his letter, I'd say his volley hit the net and stayed on his side, but that would be adopting Mr. Nick Coleman's technique -- simply insult your reader's reading comprehension and ignore his arguments. I shall not stoop to that level.

So, assuming I am misreading Mr. Thompson's antagonistic tone and assuming that he really is interested in discussion and not simply adding to the confusion of parents who can't understand why their kids are pawns in the politics of preserving the status quo, let's take a look at his letter.

[Note: All references to columns and posts found below can be accessed here.]

Craig Westover's recent column ("Is it about the system or the kids?" Dec. 22) about public education was long on complaining but short on specifics.

The newspaper columnist he referred to (Nick Coleman) didn't even discuss this subject in his stories about the book shortage at Maxfield Elementary School. Moreover, Westover did not say what his opinion is about the Maxfield book shortage. He went from mentioning a specific school issue to going off on a tangent about school choice, a different subject altogether.
Of course Mr. Coleman didn't discuss school choice in his article because that would have been presenting the other side of the story. Mr. Coleman has repeatedly said, especially when criticizing bloggers, that objectivity is what responsible journalists are all about. Unfortunately, Mr. Coleman doesn't practice what he preaches.

In my column that panicked Mr. Coleman into eating up column inches of credibility for the Star Tribune, "The moral imperative for school choice," I (and Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern) took Mr. Coleman at his word. We agreed that the situation at Maxfield, a school without books, was just "nuts." Where we disagreed with Mr. Coleman was on the cause and the solution.

Mr. Coleman complained that the cause had to do with race, the unwillingness of Minnesotans to pay more taxes for education and the governor's adherence to a "no new taxes pledge." He offered no solution to the Maxfield problem other than more money. Mr. Stern and myself felt that school administrators should be held accountable for the lack of books and at least show where the money that ought to have been spent for books went. I don't know how much more specific I can get.

Neither Mr. Stern nor I accused anyone at Maxfield of anything. Mr. Coleman said they didn't have enough books. Principal Zelma Wiley was quoted by Mr. Coleman as saying the school didn't have enough books. Maxfield students are not meeting the reading comprehension requirements. Mr. Stern and I merely asked why. Mr. Coleman and Principal Wiley took offense at such audacity.

But back to school choice. If one's focus is on the system rather than education for kids, then indeed, school choice is tangential to the Maxfield book shortage. But what Mr. Thompson and Mr. Coleman do not understand (or choose to deny) is that the issue raised by Mr. Coleman, a school without books, is not just a systems issue. It is not about Mr. Coleman's ego. It is not even about the administrative abilities of St. Paul Superintendent Pat Harvey or Maxfield Principal Zelma Wiley. It really is an issue about providing education for "the children."

The point is, the moral imperative is, that whether Nick Coleman is right or I am right doesn't matter one iota to the parent of a student trapped in a school without enough books. Any child should have the opportunity to leave a school that is failing her for a school that does have books. A student should not be forced by family circumstances to wait around for a legislature in political gridlock to authorize more funds or a new administrative team to correct problems caused by mismanagement -- whichever might be the cause.

First priority is take care of the kids. School choice does that. Educating kids is the main topic. Maxfield's problems are the tangential issue.

More Mr. Thompson --

Readers had to investigate past Pioneer Press articles and Westover's blog to figure out what he was really talking about. After doing this, it's easy to see that Westover is "an ideological enemy of public education," as Coleman called him.
Couple of interesting things here. First, I actually have a blog where interested readers can investigate the issue. My site links directly to Mr. Coleman's columns, the criticism I received from Maxfield Principal Zelma Wiley and e-mail and letter exchanges between myself and those parties. I am not afraid for readers to see what both Mr. Coleman and Principal Wiley have written (without editorial comment or interpretation). I am not afraid of having readers judge for themselves the quality of Mr. Coleman's and Principal Wiley's arguments.

On the other hand, Mr. Coleman (readers can judge for themselves) merely misrepresented my position in his most recent column on Maxfield while offering no opportunity for readers of his column to read what I actually said. Nor does he offer his readers the opportunity to see the tone of e-mails he sends to people critical of his positions.

Most notably, he misrepresented me by refusing to acknowledge that it was Pioneer Press policy, not I, that limited how I might respond to Principal Wiley's criticism, which he knew about before he wrote his column. He did not note the content of my personal and blog site reponses -- both available to him. Second, he took an argument for school choice based on providing opportunity for low-income children and corrupted it into public funding for private schools that teach young gentlemen how to "tie bowties." Again, a complete misrepresentation of my argument.

As to Mr. Coleman's statement and Mr. Thompson's agreement that I am an "ideological enemy of public education": Nuts! If one reads my columns and posts, one notes that I repeatedly make a distinction between "public education," a system of education that serves the public interests and consists of many delivery systems for skills and knowledge and includes government-run schools, and the monopolistic system of government-run schools that we have today. I support tax dollars for education. I do not support a single delivery system.

For Mr. Thompson and Mr. Coleman's benefit, a lesson in informal logical fallacy of ad hominem attack is in order. In syllogistic form, here is the "logical" argument Mr. Thompson makes:

Craig Westover supports school choice (issue in question);
Craig Westover is an ideological enemy of public education (assumed truth);
Therefore, school choice is invalid (informal logical fallacy).

Name-calling only marks Mr. Thompson as discourteous and Mr. Coleman as unprofessional. It has no bearing on the validity of my argument -- even if one assumes that their characterization of me is true.

To flip the argument -- I might write that Nick Coleman is a son that has not lived up to the standard of public service set by his father, and having made that realization in the fading years of a mediocre career, he has turned to vitriolic rhetoric to frighten public imagination and pretend that ensuing confusion constitutes influence. However, assuming that characterization is true, it would be an informal logical fallacy to invalidate the existence and significance of "homelessness" just because Nick Coleman writes about it. Certainly I can disagree with his argument for a solution to the homeless problem, but only on its merits, not simply because Nick Coleman is a guilt-ridden white guy projecting his self-loathing onto others.

Addressing the school choice argument is what Mr. Coleman refuses to do. He simply resorts to name-calling and appeals to sympathy (another informal logical fallacy) as if that were a logical argument. It's not.
Please, Westover, come out and fully explain that your idea of public school choice is in the form of private school vouchers. Explain how a voucher system can cheaply assimilate public school programs such as English Language Learners, special ed, learning disabilities, school counselors, social workers, free or reduced lunch/breakfast and much more.

You should also do this in relation to the projected $24 million shortfall in St. Paul Public Schools.

Again, the form of Mr. Thompson's question (if not the tone) indicates that he just doesn't get it. It's also ironic that after opening his letter by criticizing me as "long on complaining and short on specifics," he drags out a laundry list of complaints for which government-run schools have been unable to come up with specific workable solutions. Nonetheless, I will briefly address his points here (and in more depth in future columns).

First, while I would gladly accept private school vouchers as a movement in the right direction, I much prefer a Universal Tuition Tax Credit approach, which I spell out on my site. If Mr. Thompson has specific questions about Tuition Tax Credits, I'd be happy to answer them.

Second, it is not necessary for private schools to assimilate entirely all the programs he lists. No one has called for doing away with government-run schools. In point of fact, a voucher or tax credit system, which calls for money to follow the child no greater than 50 percent of that budgeted for a child by the state, effectively provides districts with more money per student and fewer students to worry about (hence, less expense) each time a student opts for private school. With extra funds and fewer students, government schools can enhance their existing programs.

To ask specifically how private schools would assimilate these programs is again to miss the point. Each individual school would accommodate special needs students as it judged best. That's a tautological argument on the surface, but again, the point is, in government-run education there can be only one answer that must be right for everyone (more likely to be wrong for anyone). In an individualized school system -- where money follows the child from government schools -- many programs can be tried, the failures quickly eliminated and the successful programs replicated. Further if two different approaches to, say teaching English as a second language, prove successful, both can co-exist.

It's important to note here that when talking about today's government schools and all the programs they have in place, we are not talking about programs that are working. It's been 50 years since Brown v. Board of Education, and the achievement gap between white children and children of color is still at "crisis" levels. If what government schools are doing were producing acceptable results, Mr. Thompson's argument would have some merit. They are not; it has none. We can't afford to lose another generation of kids while government schools try to get it right.

And finally, the $24 million shortfall -- kind of brings us back to where we stated. We can parrot Mr. Coleman and blame race, the unwillingness of Minnesotans to pay more taxes for education and the governor's adherence to a "no new taxes pledge," or we can accept Mr. Stern's and my argument that school administrators should be held accountable for the shortfall. That debate is system-focused. But what about the kids?

As noted, a voucher or tax credit program would accomplish two things immediately. First, for every children opting out of the St. Paul district for private school, the district would see a decrease in expenses (fewer kids to educate) and an increase in funds per remaining student. That would not be enough to cover the budget deficit, but it would help. Depending on how well the deficit is managed, a greater or fewer number of students would likely leave the district until the quality of district education improved to the point where there were insufficient motivation to leave district schools.

More important, however, is that a Universal Tuition Tax Credit or voucher program provides an immediate remedy for children from low-income families that want to act now to ensure that their children receive an adequate education. I repeat for Mr. Thompson, it's not about you; isn't not about Mr. Coleman; it's not about Pat Harvey; it's not about Zelma Wiley; it's not about me. The issue is about the kids. Until you put the educational welfare of kids ahead of concern for a system that is clearly not working, you remain on the wrong side of the "net."

The ball just went whizzing over the net through Mr. Thompson's side of the court.