The New Fourth Estate

I recently read that today’s youth can’t determine whether or not a story is factual or fictional. Some of this no doubt is because there is just too much information available and there is no consequence of disseminating false information. I had an interesting conversation with a smart, older millennial recently and she didn’t know the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The policy was called the Fairness Doctrine and its intent was to ensure viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987 and some believe its demise played a role in an increased level of party polarization.

Fast forward to 2016. We now have a President-Elect who tells outrageous falsehoods, (on TV no less), and then claims he didn’t say them. We have his surrogates who lied repeatedly during his campaign and continue to do so. We have Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump supporter and CNN commentator, who recently said “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” (Evidently, there’s no such thing as proper grammar either.) She followed that outrageous comment with “people believe they have the facts to back that [Trump’s tweets] up.” WHAAAAAAAT? No. Believing you have facts is not the same as well…ACTUALLY HAVING THE FREAKIN’ FACTS!!!

I believe if our democracy is to survive, we must find a way to once again agree on facts. Not on what to do with those facts–I’m not that delusional. Can’t we at least though, find a way to agree that the earth is round, it revolves around the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon causes tides, and climate change is real. Okay, okay, I know that last one is a bridge too far for now, but one can hope.

The media has been referred to as the Fourth Estate, but I wonder if it still holds that place. I offer that rather, money is the new Fourth Estate and the media (legacy media as some now call it) should be lumped in with bloggers and social media in the Fifth Estate. After all, Wikipedia defines the Fourth Estate as “a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.” Ever since the Citizens United ruling, the power of money has been exponentially increased. It buys access, which buys influence, and ultimately, buys votes. Yes, we still have the potential power of the individual vote, but that power only works if the voters are well-informed and then actually vote!

Amazing, isn’t it, in this time of incredible access to information and connectivity, we are less well-informed and truly connected than ever? We are bombarded with “breaking news” 24/7/365 and scandals are stretched out until the next one comes along. Not only do we have a dizzying array of sources for our unvetted information, but, complicated algorithms increasingly tailor the “news” to our liking. Google and other search engines, along with all the forms of social media have no doubt, contributed immensely to our country’s polarization. Yes, a person can still be well-informed if they really work at it, but now, they can think they are but in reality, only be getting news that validates their viewpoints irrespective of the truth. Who should arbitrate what is “real” news? How do we determine what is actually factual? Maybe when teaching our kindergarteners how to read, we need to teach them how to differentiate fact from fiction. It will be a long process, but we cannot afford to ignore the need.

As we learned during this presidential election, if people don’t have faith in the legacy media, its influence is greatly reduced. And, I doubt anyone would argue that social media and Internet “news” sites had a real impact on the election. Interesting that Trump and his supporters frequently throw the accusation of “media bias” at legacy media, but seem to give free rein to the entirely unfettered, unvetted world of social media. One thing is for sure, the days of Walter Cronkite reporting the “way it was” once each day without embellishment or sensationalism are long gone.

I’m generally an optimist and try to remain hopeful. I’m not one of those who since the election, is predicting the end of civilization as we know it. Our nation is resilient and the pendulum swings both ways. No doubt though, we’ve witnessed a wide ass swing this time. How long it will take to swing back and what damage will be done in the meantime has yet to be seen. But, I do worry that if we can’t get back to agreeing that facts and truth exist and they aren’t the same things as opinions, we are in trouble. And, if we don’t have a functioning, effective media that the people trust to give them those unbiased facts, our very democracy is at risk. A free press is after all, one of the freedoms that sets us apart form so many other countries around the world.

A fully functioning press is dependent however, on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. A Democracy cannot function as a spectator sport. Therein lies the rub. We can’t just blame others for the current state of our politics and governance and walk away. We all have a solemn responsibility to engage. Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” As hyperbolic as it may sound, I believe it is the key to saving our democracy.

Five Biggest Lies by School Choice Advocates

Linda Retire Crop#5.  School choice saves the taxpayers money.  First of all, did you know that in the state of Arizona, charter schools get $1,000 more per pupil in state funding than traditional district schools?  Secondly, all the funding workarounds concocted (often by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC) and implemented by our legislators, only serve to obfuscate the reality and prevent blame being laid where it belongs.  Tax credit donations, empowerment scholarship accounts, and school tuition organization donations serve to redistribute state revenue and hide the truth that Arizona led the nation in per public spending cuts between 2008 and 2012 ($3 billion).  Tax credits reduce funding into the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support education when the reality is the funding doesn’t go into the classrooms, but only for extracurricular, fee-based activities.  In the case of private schools, it is even worse since tax revenue is diverted directly into private education.  Although proponents say school choice saves the state money, this is true only if students who started out in public schools, end up in private schools.  Unfortunately, many tuition scholarships funded by the tax credits have gone to students who would have attended private schools anyway, representing a financial loss for the state.

#4.  School choice puts parents in control.  Au contraire.  Local control puts parents in control.  School choice promotes competition versus collaboration amongst district schools, and encourages charter school development.  Although non-profit charter schools are technically classified as public schools, they are often owned or run (behind the scenes) by for-profit companies who don’t follow the same rules of transparency as district schools and, aren’t accountable to taxpayers.  Charter schools are also legally required to accept all, but they are very adept at cherry picking their students and therefore have less than their “fair” share of special education and English language learning students.  Despite this, charter schools do not by and large perform better than district schools.  Parents are often aware of this and just assume charters perform better.  Some do, but many don’t.

#3.  School choice is the rising tide that will lift all.  Arizona State Senator Al Melvin, now a gubernatorial candidate, says that giving $9,000 vouchers to parents for each child will allow them to send their children to the school of their choice.  This, he says, will cause the bad schools to close and improve the quality of the rest.  First of all, there isn’t enough money in the entire Arizona state budget for all 1.6 million school children in the state.  Secondly, those who have access to make the choice will go, leaving those who don’t “stuck” with less funding in the public schools and much less opportunity for improvement.  As Diane Ravitch writes in her latest book, Reign of Error, “in a democracy, important social goals required social collaboration.”  Schools are not businesses that can reject “inferior” raw product.  They must take all and teach all.  Yes, they should operate efficiently but that should never be their primary concern.

As profiled by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker, economist Albert Hirschman, in his best know book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, said there are two strategies people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions.  Hirschman said the “exit” option “failed to send a useful message to underperformers.”  When engaged parents “exit” the system, versus using their “voice” to improve it, they remove agitation that could have improved the school for all.

#2.  School choice is about the children.  To put it plainly, baloney!  School choice is about business…big business.  Those on the right are up in arms about “government shoving Common Core standards down the states’ throats.”  The real drivers behind the standards though, are huge corporations and their foundations such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries just to name a few.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone gave at least $150 million for the development and implementation of the standards.  The National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers were big recipients and key to the adoption of the standards.  The education industry in the United States is a big pie (worth over $600 billion dollars) and everyone wants a piece of it.  This effort has been building for a long time, but Diane Ravitch says the current administration’s Race to the Top initiative and push for Common Core Standards is the “first time in history that the U.S. Department of Education designed programs with the intent of stimulating private sector investors to create for-profit ventures in American education.”

#1.  School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.  School Choice advocates say school choice ensures disadvantaged children the same opportunities as those more fortunate.  Not hardly.  By and large, disadvantaged children don’t have the access to make the choice.  Their parents either can’t drive them to the charter or private school, or their language skills don’t allow them to complete the complicated application, or they can’t donate time to help out at the school as often required.  School choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, poverty is.  Segregation, largely by socio-economic status (which often translates into race), is the highest it has been since 1964.  This has happened quietly and by design and the result is that those with less have a very good chance of always having less.  The American Dream is really now just a dream for many people.

Ultimately, parents shouldn’t have to make a choice.  Every district school should provide an equally high quality education.  The original intent of charters was not to compete with traditional district schools; rather, it was to meet unique needs.  In many cases, that original intent has now devolved into just another business opportunity and way to milk the taxpayer.  A strong public education system helped provide a sense of community and make our nation the greatest on earth.  The current trend of privatization will do nothing to help promote the public good and keep America strong.  School choice isn’t the solution, it is the easy way out and won’t work in the long run.  Blogger Steve Hinnefeld, in his blog School Matters, wrote “the contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.”  I tend to agree since the democratic process requires education, engagement and is rarely easy or efficient.  It is much easier to cut and run.