Daily Archives: October 6, 2014

A heapin’ helpin’ of credulity at the Bennington Banner

The toughtest task for a daily newspaper — especially a small, cash-strapped one — is to fill the Monday morning news hole. Little or no staff over the weekend; a shortage of easy stories, like public meetings, official releases, and news conferences. So I can sympathize with the folks at the Bennington Banner for seizing on a story with a grabby header: Vermont ranks near the bottom in a national ranking of “parental input” into their children’s education.

Or, as the Banner ineptly put it:

Vermont recently ranked 45th out of the 51 states and Washington D.C. in a report designed to rank states based on how much power parents have over their childrens’ education.

Hey, congratulations to Puerto Rico! I guess they achieved statehood while nobody was looking.

There’s also the small matter of the double-plural form of “children.” But that’s not why I’m writing.

Why I’m writing is that the Banner swallowed, hook line and sinker, a bogus “study” from an ersatz “reform” group, the Center for Education Reform, which is part of the American Legislative Exchange Center (ALEC) web of innocuously-named astroturf organizations. And whose governing board is loaded with high-profile proponents of for-profit and charter schools.

If the Banner had spent two minutes on The Google, it could have uncovered that extremely relevant information, instead of regurgitating CER’s pregurgitated propaganda.

But really, you didn’t even need to go that far to realize that something was rotten in Denmark. Just take a gander at CER’s four — count ’em, four — criteria for evaluating parental input, thoughtfully entitled the Parent Power Index:

School choice, charter schools, online learning, and teacher quality.

Okay, the first two are gimmies. The only form of parental “input” recognized by CER is whether parents can choose their kids’ schools. Which kinda-sorta ignores the most important kinds of parental input available at every public school: teacher conferences, interactions with administrators, school board meetings, and school board elections.

See, public schools are, well, “public.” And members of the public can have just about as much input as they choose to have. Most teachers and administrators welcome parental involvement in their children’s education. And in my years covering school board meetings, I’ve seen countless examples of boards bending over backwards to accommodate the squeaky wheels among their constituencies.

If your idea of “parental input” is limited to one single act of choice, not unlike going to Walmart to buy a new microwave, then I feel sorry for your children. But that’s how CER sees it.

The other two criteria sound more benign, but not when you read the fine print.

“Teacher quality” isn’t a measurement of, oh, the actual quality of a state’s teachers. It amounts to this: Are there state-mandated annual teacher evaluations? Are tenure and retention tied to those evaluations?

In other words, have the teachers’ unions been whipped into subservience?

As for the fourth, “online learning,” CER advocates the availability of “a full-time online caseload.” Which is great, if you want your kid’s education supplied by the University of Phoenix or some other for-profit scam artist.

I’m not saying there’s no place for online learning in K-12 education. But is it really one of the four pillars of “parental input”? No freakin’ way.

In short, this CER report is pure ALEC-style horse hockey. And the Banner should be ashamed of itself for uncritically serving it up to its readers.


Health care reform: the election issue with no teeth?

Interesting thing happened last week. Vermont CURE, an advocacy group for single-payer health care reform, cut ties with Tess Taylor, the former House Assistant Majority Leader who resigned from the Legislature to sign on with CURE only about six months ago. In the middle of the 2014 legislative session.

Taylor had been brought on board in the expectation that there’d be some heavy lifting to do in the 2014 campaign, and her political chops would come in handy. Seemed like a good bet at the time, and an even better one after a spring and summer full of trouble for Vermont Health Connect. Surely, went the conventional thinking, the failures of VHC would mean trouble for Governor Shumlin.

Well, maybe not. Bram Kleppner, chairman of the V-CURE board, speaking with VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld: 

“We were expecting a strong candidate to oppose Gov. Shumlin. We were expecting a wave of strong  candidates coming in to run against supporters of (single-payer). So we brought Tess on, obviously because of her deep expertise in the Vermont political process,” Kleppner says. “But it became clear to us after the primaries that that political and legislative opposition that we were expecting really just hadn’t materialized.”

So, rather than a campaigning challenge, V-CURE will focus on a PR effort to convince the general public that single-payer is the best way forward. Taylor’s experience is less germane to that.

This ties in with an email chat I recently had with fellow blogger (and former Burlington City Councilor) Ed Adrian. He wanted to know how my blogposts about health care reform were doing in terms of readership. He’d noticed that anytime he wrote about health care reform, his numbers were “dismal.”

So I checked my numbers and found that, for whatever it’s worth, the same is true for theVPO. Health care stories just don’t attract many pageviews.

Now, theVPO’s audience is a very select, and self-selected, slice of the general public: those with a strong interest in Vermont politics. You can’t safely generalize from them to the entire electorate.

But you’d think that, if anything, my readers would be more interested in health care than everybody else.

Ed pointed out that a sizable majority of Vermonters have never had to interact with Vermont Health Connect because they get their health insurance elsewhere. For them, VHC’s failings are basically an abstract concern.

I wouldn’t have placed much value in the pageviews of a couple of blogs. But combine it with V-CURE’s move, and i have to wonder: is health care reform a lot more sizzle than steak? Is it mainly of interest to insiders and the political media?

It’s hard to tell from the course of the campaign to date. Scott MIlne hasn’t made a dent in Governor Shumlin’s armor with his attacks on VHC incompetence; but is that because of the issue, or because of his terrible campaign?

Then there’s Dan Feliciano, who’s gotten a lot of insider buzz with his devout opposition to single-payer. But his fundraising has been terrible and his 48-hour fundraising blitz came and went without any news — which has to mean it was a complete failure. Is he getting anywhere with a frontal attack on single-payer? It’s impossible to tell, since he hasn’t been included in recent polls. But his fundraising numbers certainly don’t reveal any groundswell of support.

There’s reason to believe that the failures of VHC may not be that politically harmful to Shumlin. I suspect that property taxes would have been a better issue for the Republicans. They still wouldn’t have beaten the Governor; but only a small portion of Vermonters have interacted with VHC, while pretty much everybody pays property taxes, either directly or indirectly.

It’s worth pondering, anyway.