NYT Channels Monty Python’s Black Knight

America’s growing school choice movement is a bridge to educational freedom—an escape from our failing state school monopolies. And with all the tenacity (and veracity) of Monty Python’s Black Knight, the New York Times stands athwart that bridge, declaring: “None shall pass.”

The Times’ latest attempt to parry the thrust for educational freedom is this story attacking education tax credit school choice programs: “Public Money Finds Back Door to Private Schools.” No doubt this story has legs…but not for long.

Let’s begin with the title, which claims that private donations to private scholarship organizations are “public money” because they qualify for a tax credit. It’s a simple claim that is simply not true. As has been recently reported:

the genius of [tax credit programs] was that the money would never go into public accounts, making it less susceptible to court challenges…. As predicted, tax credits have thus far withstood legal challenges, most recently when the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s program last year.

Perhaps the editors of the NYT were simply unaware of the report above—and unaware of the Supreme Court decision it cites (ACSTO v. Winn) explicitly stating that tax credited donations are not public money. But here’s the thing, the quote above is actually from the same story on which the Times slapped the “Public Money…” headline. So either the NYT’s editors don’t read their own stories, or they’re knowingly presenting a false statement to their readers in big, bold type. I can understand someone not wanting to read the NYT every day, but surely they’ve managed to find editors willing to do so?

Next, let’s talk about the story’s lede….

This is where a paper puts the bit that they expect to rouse the most reader interest or indignation. What we have is an anecdote about a single Georgia scholarship granting organization (SGO) that just might be allocating donations in a way that donors would not approve of. But here’s the thing: there are a lot of different SGOs. If you decide that you don’t like the way one SGO is using your donations… you can stop donating to it. You can then look at other SGOs to find one you think is well run. You can even stop donating to SGOs entirely if you don’t find a single one that meets your standards. The system is quite responsive to the donor/taxpayer’s concerns.

Now let’s compare that to the status quo in America, under which every taxpayer must pay for the state school monopoly in their area regardless of its performance, efficiency, or institutional ethics. How’s that workin’ out? Since we’re talking about Georgia, surely it’s relevant to bring up the epic cheating scandal that exploded in the Atlanta Public School District less than a year ago. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that 178 teachers and administrators had systematically defrauded children of an education by falsifying the students’ state test sheets to make it look as though they were really learning. Can taxpayers cut off their funding to the district? No. Can they expect swift and complete justice? Nope. Even though 82 of the perps had already confessed last July, only one had been fired as of 8 weeks ago.

So which system is better equipped to deal with inevitable human frailties; the one that lets donors pull funding as soon as they have the first hint of concern, or the one that they have to keep funding no matter how suffused with corruption it becomes? Hmm?

Next, the Times demonstrates remarkable cruelty to animals by trotting out the rhetorical jade that we live in a “time of deep cutbacks in public schools.” Perhaps they felt safe making this claim knowing that the federal government’s education statistics are usually 3 or more years out of date, and hence don’t cover the most recent years of our economic downturn. If so, they must have thought no one would give credence to the up-to-date numbers published by a well-known private organization: nominal public school spending increased every single year between 2001-02 and 2011-12—both in the aggregate and per-pupil. Even after the Great Recession, even after adjusting for inflation, we’re still spending 10.6% more per pupil than we were when we had just crested the tech boom back in 2001-02. What right-wing group came up with these astonishing numbers? Was it the left’s current bête-noire, ALEC? Actually, it was the N. E. A.

Finally, some paragraphs into the piece, the Times comes up with a concern that almost has merit: some private schools that serve scholarship-receiving students have a pedagogical emphasis that some taxpayers might disagree with. The examples offered are sports and religion, but many others could no doubt be suggested. And a strong case could be made that taxpayers in a free society should not be compelled to pay for the teaching of ideas they find objectionable. In fact, such a case was already made over two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves… is sinful and tyrannical.” That quote comes from the Virginia Act Establishing Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786 and subsequently used as the model for state constitutional clauses all over the country banning such “compelled support.”

So why do I say that the Times’ concern “almost” has merit? Because it doesn’t apply to education tax credits. No one is compelled to support any SGO, and those who do choose to make a donation get to select the SGO that receives their money. What the Times seems not to have realized is that this concern actually does apply to… the public school system it is trying so ineptly to defend. Taxpayers’ options under state schooling are to keep funding the system or go to jail, but it is not hard to imagine that some taxpayers may disbelieve the ideas taught by public schooling. Consider the story from just a few days ago about the public school teacher who taught her students that they could be arrested for speaking ill of the President. Or consider the Times’ evident disdain for private schools that focus on sports to the perceived detriment of academics. No one has to fund such schools under an education tax credit system, but we all have to fund them under the government monopoly status quo. Is this news (that didn’t fit) to the New York Times?

Next, the Times laments that SGOs cost money to operate. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars… in some cases”! Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are a fiscal hawk just like the New York Times, and that you’re desperately concerned about the efficiency with which your education dollars are spent. Which system should you prefer, tax credits or the public school monopoly? As it happens, Florida’s k-12 scholarship tax credit is raising academic achievement at less than half the per pupil cost of the traditional state-run schools.

According to a statistical study commissioned by the Florida legislature and authored by David Figlio, students accepting scholarships to attend private schools under the state’s tax credit program enjoy improved academic achievement. According to a second study co-authored by Figlio and Cassandra Hart, the program also improves achievement of students who remain in public schools [see previous link].

Of course the Times story mentions that Figlio has studied Florida’s tax credit program… but it doesn’t report what he found. Apparently, a significant positive academic impact is not relevant to a NYT education story if it comes from a program outside the control of the state monopoly school system. Print readers are left entirely in the dark about these facts. The online NYT version of the article links to a .pdf file of one of the studies without comment, but even the subset of Web readers who take the time to click through and read it will only get half the story. Those who read the Times’ story on other on-line sites that lack links won’t get even that.

But what of the charge that “some of the programs have become enmeshed in politics.” Even coming from the NYT this line of argument is difficult to believe. Has it not occurred to them that state schooling has been soaking in politics since its inception? Are they unaware that the public school employee unions—whose funding comes entirely from compulsory taxation—spend more on federal politics than Chevron, Exxon Mobil, the NRA, and Lockheed Martin combined? Or that between 93 and 99 percent of those political contributions have gone to Democrats? Surely they must be aware of news coverage like this:

 If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. Ten percent of the delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention were teachers’ union members.

But then again, maybe they haven’t read it. After all, it ran in the New York Times Magazine.

Against public schooling’s multi-generation legacy of arch political partisanship, the Times complains that businesses might endear themselves to politicians by… helping poor kids get a good education. They present no evidence of an illegal quid pro quo—just the haunting specter that someone in political office might be gratified if a business helps kids learn. They have it precisely backwards. The real problem is that there are so many in political office who would not be gratified by such an act, because their own political lives depend on teachers’ union donations coercively squeezed out of taxpayers thanks to the government-protected monopoly on k-12 schooling.

Years ago, we were told that the legacy media were distinguished by their “multiple layers of fact checking”. This NYT article, like most NYT articles on education, is certainly comprised of multiple layers of something… but it doesn’t smell like fact checking.