Sorry, but you got it wrong: redefinED introduces rebuttED

Last week, the Tampa Bay Times, the biggest newspaper in Florida, published a front-page story about Jeb Bush’s still-substantial influence in Florida education reform. The headline was fair and straightforward — “Jeb Bush shaping education in Florida” — but then came the blurb beneath it: “Lawmakers listen. Private and charter schools and online learning benefit.”

It sounds provocative, but we think the evidence shows it’s pretty distorted. If you don’t believe us, just read the first two paragraphs of the story:

When Sen. David Simmons needed his colleagues’ support on the education budget last week, he dropped a powerful name on the Senate floor.

“I had a conversation last week with former Gov. Jeb Bush in which we discussed this and his support of it,” Simmons said of the provision to spend $119 million on reading programs at low-income schools.

It’s a little bit baffling how an editor or copy editor could read that lead — about Bush supporting a big-ticket effort to help struggling readers in public schools — and then write the aforementioned blurb. But the truth is – and we say this respectfully to our friends in the media — that kind of thing happens fairly often in reporting about school choice. It feeds a narrative we don’t think is rooted in reality. And we think it’s time somebody set the record straight.

Since we call our blog redefinED, it might as well as be us. So, today, we humbly introduce rebuttED, complete with funky new logo!

Behind the silly goat horns, rebuttED is what we’re going to tag blog posts that aim to chip away at misinformation circulated by anyone who shapes public opinion about school choice and other aspects of school reform we find critical. It might be a newspaper. It might be a lawmaker. It might be an interest group.

It might be something we see or hear in Florida, where we’re based. It might be something going on elsewhere. Encouraging developments in school choice are sprouting all over the country. And so is the critical language that still dominates the debate in Florida. Privatization. Right-wing agenda. Draining money from public schools.

This is not about fighting fire with fire. As we’ve said before, we believe there is a lot of common ground in education reform. We think even our staunchest critics are right about many things in public education. We’re going to do our best NOT to fuel the us-vs.-them myth by throwing grenades.

But we’re also not going to sit idly by and sigh. Too many half-truths and misrepresentations are getting amplified by news coverage that too often sounds like a broken record. We can’t have a productive debate about what’s best for kids when everything comes back to a mythical story line that’s set in stone and reinforced with rebar.

The past week offered a number of examples from Florida alone.

* The Lakeland Ledger wrote that “conservative education reformers” were back in Tallahassee this year to push vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public schools. It’s true that Republican lawmakers — if that’s what the writer meant by conservatives — have strongly supported tax-credit scholarships, aka “vouchers.” But so have many Democrats. In 2010, when the Florida Legislature approved a huge expansion in the tax-credit scholarship program, nearly half the Democrats voted yes.

* The Palm Beach Post, in an editorial, got some basic facts wrong about the tax credit scholarship program, including how much this year’s legislation would increase caps on corporate donations. It described the increase as “the amount of money that can be drained from state coffers” even though one credible report after another, the latest by the Legislature’s well-respected research arm, has found that “vouchers” SAVE taxpayer money. For the record, taxpayers spent $9,855 to educate each student in Florida public schools in 2009-10, the most recent year for which full state data is available. In that same year, the tax credit scholarship cost $3,950.

* The Orlando Sentinel, meanwhile, wrote this:

Supporters, including state leaders, say it saves Florida money because the scholarship cost less than public schools get to educate those children. There is disagreement about that, however.

Supporters also say students in the program, based on the standardized tests they’ve taken, are making academic gains. There is disagreement about that too.

Technically, that’s true. Some people do disagree. But some people also disagree that Neil Armstrong ever walked on the moon. There is a body of evidence now that reaches beyond opinion that could better inform readers.

As to the “disagreement” about academic gains, the state law requires scholarship students to take a nationally norm-referenced test approved by the state Department of Education, and the data is reported to the public every year. The latest report, issued in August, concluded that the students who choose the scholarship were among the lowest achievers in the public schools they left behind, and that they scored marginally higher in reading and math than students on free or reduced-priced lunch in public schools. The report also stated: “These differences, while not large in magnitude, are larger and more statistically significant than in the past year’s results, suggesting that successive cohorts of participating students may be gaining ground over time.”

We must add that the state’s research isn’t being conducted by a crackpot. Northwestern University economist David Figlio was at the University of Florida when the state hired him for this work, and his credentials are impeccable. In fact, when he left Gainesville for Chicago, the news media cited him as the latest example of the “brain drain” afflicting Florida universities because of underfunding and political shenanigans.

We’re under no illusions here. Redefining the prevailing narrative about school choice in Florida and beyond won’t be easy, and we’re just a wee little blog in a sea of big media. We prefer earnest dialogue between fair-minded people. But the stakes are too high to let this stuff slide without offering some kind of rebuttal.

We’re prepared to put on the horns. 🙂


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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director of Research & Special Projects at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times).


Excited for this new series of posts. It really helps me and I hope the general public see the issues as they are, not as what

Ron Matus

Ricky, thanks for the compliment. And thanks for noticing.

“Draining money from public schools” really, we still pay taxes and those taxes still go to the public schools. We also pay school taxes in our counties and those are still going to the schools. I know my family still buys things from public school fundraisers and that is still going to the school. So how does the public school system think we are draining, I believe they need to look at where there money is going, I believe it they need to change it to “Leaking money in public schools”. My children get a scholarship every year to go to a Christian school and though it does cover a lot we still have to raise money every year (just like we did in public school).

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