Culture of disinformation

Culture | The postmodern disregard for truth shows up in propaganda against school choice

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

The ex-communist convert to conservatism David Horowitz has said that conservatives-and this would apply to Christians in particular-have a disadvantage in the culture wars. They still believe in concepts such as truth, fair play, and the worth of other human beings. Many of their opponents-for whom truth and morality are relative-operate under no such restrictions.

That may be an overgeneralization about both parties, but Christians who become involved in politics and cultural issues need to realize that their opponents will play hardball. For those who believe truth is only a matter of interpretation, any inconvenient facts only need to be given the right "spin" until they can appear to mean anything they choose. For those who believe that moral beliefs are only the imposition of power, it is perfectly legitimate to use power to squelch their opposition, even if this means destroying their opponent's reputation by any means possible. Those whose backs are against the wall can be expected to fight dirty.

One particularly threatening idea to today's educational establishment, the fountainhead of relativism, is the prospect of school-choice programs, in which state funding would go to private, usually Christian, schools in a last-ditch effort to educate the poor children who are the prime casualties of contemporary educational theory. Cleveland's school-voucher program was struck down by a federal judge, but a practically identical program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, was upheld by the Supreme Court, which refused to hear a lawsuit against it. Now 40 states-not to mention presidential candidates-are considering or advocating school choice.

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The stakes are high in this controversy, not only because school choice threatens business-as-usual teachers' unions but because the nation's educational crisis demonstrates the failure of today's secularist ideologies, which have given us the relativism that minimizes educational content and that undermines classroom discipline. Secularists used to associate themselves with education, portraying Christians as backward and closed-minded. But now Christian schools are, in general, providing a better foundation for education than the alternatives.

Whether school choice is a good idea or-as many Christians fear-a Trojan horse for government regulation of church-run schools, it is instructive to study the disinformation campaign of its secularist opponents.

Leading the charge is People for the American Way. The organization, founded by television producer Norman Lear, was launched as a high-minded, nonpartisan attempt to promote American freedom and democratic values. It soon became evident that its real purpose was institutionalize the themes of Mr. Lear's hit sitcom All in the Family, with its ridicule of Archie Bunker's conservatism and its exaltation of liberalism. In doing so, it would help counter the influence of the newly emerging Religious Right.

But now People for the American Way has become just another lobbying and political advertising firm. America's most powerful and politically connected teachers' union, the National Education Association, paid PFAW to run a national campaign against school choice. (It should also be noted that the NEA's executive director, Don Cameron, has become one of PFAW's board of directors.)

As part of the NEA-funded campaign, PFAW mobilizes other organizations to undermine support for the plans. Although black Americans who want a better education for their children are among the biggest supporters of school choice, PFAW released a joint statement with the NAACP calling vouchers "a pernicious, steal-from-the-poor and give-to-the-rich scheme."

This kind of rhetoric feeds a false impression echoed by North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, quoted uncritically in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that Milwaukee's program primarily benefits "suburban white kids who are either already in private school or whose parents wanted them to be there." This is simply untrue: Milwaukee's program only provides for low-income children who live in the city.

PFAW also maintains that Milwaukee's program drains money away from the public schools. This, too, is false. Massive cuts in the funding for Milwaukee's schools just have not happened. In fact, even as officials launched the voucher system, per-pupil spending for children in the public schools increased. Districts that once complained about too many children to educate now have fewer-and, theoretically, at least, should be able to give them more attention.

Another anti-choice argument is that children educated by Choice schools do no better academically than children educated in the public schools. It is true that one University of Wisconsin study in 1995 found that students who went to Choice schools-at that time, religious schools were not allowed to participate-had test scores equivalent to their public-school counterparts. This study, though, did find a rather remarkable benefit: The scores of Choice students did not decline as they entered higher grades, which is usually the case in urban inner-city schools. Somehow, the private schools have a way of sustaining academic interest and achievement in a way that the public schools do not.


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