SADOW: Varney Clobbers Mann In T-P School Voucher Debate

I doubt it was planned, but what turned into a New Orleans Times-Picayune version of point/counterpoint on the issue of school vouchers illustrates well the poverty of the case against their use in Louisiana’s provision of education and in a way desperate enough to be telling that the real goal is distraction from the main issue.

Almost simultaneously published on site were a column wondering whether the several million of dollars that went into this year’s program was spent wisely and another concluding the initial indications showed the program’s administration was off to a good start. The program allows students who otherwise would attend a poorly-performing school to have the state pay for their tuition to attend a qualifying private or public school, at a level below what taxpayers would have to give to the public school that would have been attended.

The negative piece, written by former reporter and political shill for various elected Democrats, and current journalism school director Bob Mann, concentrated mainly on the one school where auditors discovered misuse of funds, and more generally charged that “education ‘reforms’ appear to be as shoddy and deceitful as the product” produced by that school, on the basis of that and that the large majority of audited schools did not keep records in a way that definitively allowed for determination that money used had proper accounting controls and was for educational expenditures. Throughout, rhetorical tricks were used in place of logical analysis to try to make these points, supplemented by the ignoring of any context at all.

In particular, the piece tried to con the reader into accepting the selective shortcomings of a process as indicative of the failure of the policy’s substance. In the two audits, only one deviant school was found, and interestingly enough because it was one of the few that actually followed procedures correctly. Absence of the ability to definitively determine the status of others does not mean they also have problems. In fact, it seems to suggest the real problem was that the Department of Education did not instruct well in what kind of recordkeeping was expected on this particular issue, so endemic was the problem, also likely because of the several other criteria used in the audits (some were informational only), in most cases this information was available and showed few problems.

But to sidestep from there to the allegation that this means the “reforms are “shoddy and deceitful” is intellectually dishonest. All we know is the procedures worked to catch one problem, and many didn’t follow procedures for whatever reason. That evidence does not allow for the tarring of the entire procedural operation as a failure, much less the substance of the program itself. It does mean DOE needs to reinforce the necessity of correct implementation of the reporting procedures (and even here Mann blows that layup with an analogy to tax payments and audits that is incorrect.)

By contrast, the more positive piece written by former Times-Picayune sportswriter, now its opinion columnist James Varney placed a premium on solid analysis and brought proper context into play. He correctly noted on what had been audited – again, admittedly not everything – showed only the one material violator out of 117 schools and that opponents such as Mann were trying to substitute the exception for the rule.

He also swung the focus on performance that provided the proper context, noting that several schools had been removed from eligibility because of poor performance after one year and yet public schools who had been performing that way for decades did not suffer the same withdrawal of funding. It exposed a basic hypocrisy in the Mann piece, who found it convenient enough only to ask whether money is well spent on the program – again, confusing procedure with substance – and not on whether the same could be said about significant swaths of public education institutions in Louisiana – institutions in fact whose former students are the intended beneficiaries of the program.

Finally, he did not confuse procedure with substance, praising the rigorous requirements of required oversight (even as he did not address the failure of many schools to report adequately on those couple of the several areas of evaluation). He offered no judgment of the program substance, other than the observation of known failure of many public schools by contrast, the proper course of analysis as the results aren’t in yet. Until DOE presents a cohort analysis of student progress among three groups – those in failing schools, those who were awarded a voucher but did not use it, and those who were awarded one and used it – no judgment can be made about the substance of the program, and Varney refuses to copy Mann in making the eager rush to polemics to assert something that simply isn’t supported.

So if we equate the argument to Little Big Horn, Mann dons a cavalry uniform and Varney dresses primitively, with Mann’s version riddled with arrows. I don’t know if the T-P put them up to this, which usually is admitted when arranged, but it certainly gave readers a nice comparison and contrast (and as a result maybe tells them one particular J-school features more the learning of rhetorical devices than of critical thinking ability). And no doubt many of the low information, low interest consumers among them won’t be able to discern the logical failings in Mann’s piece and thereby gorged on the red meat he threw them, oblivious to the arrows. However, in reality the question of the quality of the scholarship voucher program won’t be resolved by dubious assertion, but by data.

And if that analysis turns out the way results from charter school performance have indicated, be prepared for more of the same sloppiness by opponents, on steroids.



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