Some unnatural tilts in media coverage from vouchers to cops
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted July 5, 2012
The principal was already in hot water for abusing children and other practices that shut his school down in May. And then in June came a search warrant, a 22 page criminal record and an investigation for child enticement and harmful materials. Testimony existed how the principal led two juveniles to his home to show off the hooks above his bed used to dominate female visitors (according to the complaint) and then offered to tie one boy up, which sent them running from the house.
You only knew about this June 22 if you watched WISN Channel 12 news – since the main newspaper hadn’t led with such details when it reported the school closing in May. That was curious. Sex scandals of any flavor sell newspapers and are prized, even exaggerated when police searches don’t immediately result in charges. So maybe the education reporter and the vice reporter hadn’t connected the dots.
But public educators read something darker and deeper, having long dealt with what they call the JS attitude to expose and attack the public education system at any turn and trumpet any hint of salaciousness or failure. Why else would JS recently report seven young deaths from fire, shootings, crashes and the like that had no connection with schooling over the last year — with a headline that all were MPS students? Seemed quite a reach when you recall the public school responsibility to educate all who apply.
Had the child abusing school story – a K-12 filled with multiple reports of children being beaten, police called in more than 20 times, a principal accused of enticing juveniles to his home for lurid encounters – been about a Milwaukee public school, imagine how speedily reporters would have jumped to tell the tale in headlines three inches high across the top of the front page. Proof not needed. “Public school scandal” would be enough.
But this was a voucher school.
The principal with the long rap sheet who calls himself “Dr.” – Corey Daniels – had his private school for low-income families closed twice by the state Department of Public Instruction but found ways to keep it open anyway, to the dismay of the misled parents who hoped the Milwaukee Institute for Academic Achievement would live up to its name or reflect the values expected from the space it occupied within the Grace United Church of Christ, 4920 N. Sherman Blvd.
The placement of the May 28 JS story and the lead caption and paragraph rather tepidly described “unsafe conditions” and “so understaffed that the school leader took children to his home while he worked on ‘other things.’” There was little public outrage because “things” were buried far down in the JS story – multiple beatings for instance.
Imagine if such reports involved public schools, though of course these voucher schools also survive on sizable taxpayer money — and a complicated aid formula bleeding money from public schools even as the state reduces support alarmingly for public education.
This is the curious schizophrenia in current media coverage, which some observers interpret as giving the program where real scandals occur a pass or softening the problem.
With voucher schools like Daniels ran, the news stories lead with such “horrendous” acts as “transporting in unregistered school busses without a proper license.”
This is horrendous? The full weight of the criminal record, the beating charges, the 20 times police had been called to the school, were buried way down, not fully known and only given prominence in TV coverage.
Such lack of print enterprise or editorial outrage is particularly strange since the voucher program would be easy to cover. There are a little more than 100 schools in the city of Milwaukee created under the voucher gift of taxpayer funding, yet the reports of corruption, child neglect and endangerment range over 30% of them over the last few years. Imagine how even a tinier percentage would be treated in the public school arena.
Contrast the treatment of the voucher program with how JS gets highly exercised at poor families abusing government food share projects by grabbing extra groceries or at the Milwaukee police department when reporters uncover mislabeled crime statistics.
JS has long had a beef with the Milwaukee police department (just as many educators think it has a beef with the MPS). So it clearly encouraged conspiratorial nuts to accuse police officers of deliberately reducing aggravated assaults into simple assaults to make crime figures look better, much to the anger of both the police union and Police Chief Ed Flynn who have to face each other across the bargaining table while cooperating on law and order issues.
In reality there is no benchmark to compare this data against past police departments, as JS itself concedes. As one angry sergeant complained to me in private, by heritage city police would be more inclined to “land harder in reporting an assault rather than lighter.” He was particularly outraged when the newspaper speculated out loud that Milwaukee major crime wasn’t going down but going up and officers were colluding with Flynn to fudge for political purposes.
Turns out that further investigation and studies all the way up to the Common Council blew all that up in the newspaper’s face. Crime was going down, some of the data entries went the other way, reporting simple assaults as aggravated, and the main cause was computer coding and clerical problems. Could it be that so much of what the pubic gobbles up as conspiracy actually comes down to human frailty, technological limits and policy complexity? That’s certainly what consumers dealing with phone and cable companies and shopping centers face daily going about their normal lives.
Coverage of education issues raises similar speculation. While no one thinks 66% graduation rates are acceptable for public schools, you will look in vain for stories of how even that is remarkable given the economic and social wreckage MPS deals with daily and how its results steadily improve despite the constant disparagement and loss of funding. Yet meanwhile more state money is set aside for the voucher program though independent studies prove it’s not as good for students.
Truth is, no one can attack voucher schools without being accused of not caring about poor black children or not appreciating the power of faith education, since religious fundamentalism and church locales have proven a major part of the voucher growth. Those attitudes have become the tools to protect voucher schools and avoid side-by-side comparisons, even when available data demonstrates their weakness, even while the facts suggest that the occasional voucher successes are actually an aberration.
Maybe that’s why the media seems generally less upset by abuses in the voucher schools, which it treats as growing pains in a movement it has editorially endorsed.
Of course there are capable voucher schools, though not at the rate or results of public schools, proving that skill and knowledge make a difference in any system. But studies continue to demonstrate how the wonderful sounding abstract theory — that voucher schools provide options for disadvantaged families – doesn’t work in real life and parents regularly flee back to the public schools to give their children truly rounded education.
The voucher approach is credited as offering disadvantaged families a “choice” – choice being a winning concept in selling education though apparently not so popular these days in terms of women’s reproductive rights.
This blind belief in voucher money has defeated the usual media standard of looking at results, weighing outcomes in context and more fairly reporting how public schools have responded to all the challenges within society and are actually doing better than the voucher setup with a heck of a lot more students and the responsibility to educate all children, not cherry-pick.
Maybe it’s defensible that the journalistic watchdog reserves its hardest scrutiny for the largest institutions, but it sure has let smaller fish that have philosophical support wriggle away — until they become quite big fish indeed. Voucher schools are the well-meaning concept that in practice opens the door to corrupt influences and secretive outside right-wing money. The forces funding voucher growth completely contradict the intentions of the communities getting these schools. They further a political agenda that would upset the inner city neighborhoods these schools serve – and many in education suspect the newspaper is serving as the hand-maiden.
But newspapers are not alone. Politicians, including entrenched city incumbents, proclaim a “black pride” brand to support this program – yet they are taking money for their campaigns from the far-away wealthy voucher supporters who would never send their own children to such schools. Their constituents have to look harder at where that campaign money comes from and how these leaders play footsie with the opposition in the background.
Ask yourself: Is this where your candidate is getting money? There’s a national money conduit called American Federation for Children, relying on rich donors in Arkansas, New York, Texas, California, etc., who care little about Milwaukee children and whose campaign expenditures only begin to be revealed July 20 in state reports.
AFC has been playing heavily and somewhat nastily in local politics for years – and not just in school board races, often running repulsive political flyers and TV ads against progressive names such as state Sen. Chris Larson and Rep. JoCasta Zamarippa.
It may sound convincing to claim that deeply faithful neighbors can do a better job teaching children than trained and often unionized professionals, that well meaning people can teach as well as college educated ones, that grade school children can learn with occasional prayer sessions, that union teachers are not as dedicated as the nice lady sitting next to you in the church pew. And politicians like Scott Walker can make hay on the idea that experience is not a factor in merit, that the teacher who sticks and learns over 20 years is not as valuable as the teacher who excels, blazes (and maybe burns out) in the first two years.
So now in Wisconsin politics the voucher program has become an unrestrained sideshow without sufficient regulation. It keeps growing in state funding and territory, relying on gullible minority leaders. It has attracted influences aimed at swallowing up local voice and public schools, allowing an influx of fraud and charlatans taking advantage of people’s love of children.
Society has indeed neglected its black urban children – which created quite a political opening in these communities – but should it be to the point of accepting big bucks from alien ideologies? Wealthy conservatives saw the passion from far away and exploited it for a different social agenda, figuring those liberals were too dumb to catch on.
The sunshine of publicity could expose this double game, just as sunshine is now sending 20 corporations scrambling from the social excesses of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose work in state legislations on Voter ID and Stand Your Ground bills exposed these companies to consumer outrage).
But sunshine requires a media with objectivity, and political leanings have certainly interfered. Educators now have reason to wonder at the tendency to downplay voucher school abuses while exaggerating deficits in the public schools.