20/20's 'Stupid in America'-The ABCs of Public School Bashing

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Few people who watched ABCs 20/20 segment “Stupid in America” that aired
last month — certainly few who follow education issues as we do — would
mistake the program for being balanced. The reporting, while shoddy,
was very selective, for example, airing the views of four times as many
voucher and charter school advocates as supporters of public schools.

The program offered no counterpoint to the controversial views of
voucher proponents such as Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby or Jay


Viewers would never know that Hoxby’s research methods and findings have
been widely challenged by a number of respected scholars, including
professors at Princeton and Duke.

Nor would viewers know that Greene is a “fellow” at the conservative
Manhattan Institute, and a professional critic of public schools. He was
not identified as a spokesperson for conservative causes. In fact, his
affiliation with the Manhattan Institute, surely his defining
professional role, was not even mentioned during the program, a serious
lapse of journalistic ethics.

Greene’s often repeated claims that the U.S. continues to “pour” money
into public schools, yet “schools aren’t better,” or that, essentially,
“money doesn’t matter” have been shown by credible research and common
sense to be erroneous.

Academic findings and considerable media reporting, from Florida to
Arizona to the Northeast, have shown that many, many charter and voucher
schools are educationally adrift and financially mismanaged. Yet of the
thousands of charter and voucher schools in the country, the program
selected only schools with reported successes, at least over the short

Not only did 20/20 cherry- pick charter schools, it ignored a
significant national study (the subject of Jan. 28 ”’New York Times”’
article) showing that public school students score higher in math than
private and charter school students, when demographic characteristics
and school location are taken in account. One of the co-authors of the
study has reported that 20/20 producers were aware of his research but
elected not to use the data, apparently because it did not “fit in” with
the preconceived conclusions of the show.

Given what 20/20 excluded, it would be inaccurate to say — as
journalists often do — that ABC “held up a mirror” to public education
and “Stupid in America” is what it showed. What 20/20 reflected a very
skewed perspective, hostile to public schools, sympathetic to

The question is: Why? Why has ABC intentionally misrepresented public
education? Why is a network that claims to champion the public’s right
to know, tearing down democratically accountable schools that are open
to all children, and promoting private schools, which are neither
publicly-accountable nor open to all children? Further, why is the
network even assigning such a complex and controversial subject to an on-air
personality John Stossel, who has earned speaking fees from both the
Manhattan and Cato institutes, which have made attacking public schools
among their highest priorities? Cato’s website even highlights that fact
that a speech by Mr. Stossel is carried in its newsletter.

It is curious that for years, the political right has championed the
United States, as “the greatest country in the world” and loudly claimed
that liberals “hate” America, and want to see it “fail.” Yet, it is
conservatives who have carried on an unrelenting attack on, perhaps, the
most basic institution in the country. If America is “great,” and more
than 85 percent of Americans attend public school, can our schools
really be deficient as the Right insists?

We work with young people all the time who have graduated from public
schools and who have excelled not only academically but in the arts,
drama, music or public service. We know dozens of young people and have
every reason to believe there are hundreds of thousands more in public
schools across the country who are demonstrating leadership in making
their schools and their community stronger.

Some public schools are struggling, in part because the children they
serve are struggling, at home and in their neighborhoods, and, in part,
because the schools themselves are not well-maintained or adequately
staffed. But most public schools are succeeding and children are
flourishing. Without those schools, thousands of children, especially
those with special needs or who are learning English as a second
language, would be excluded from educational opportunities because they
would not be welcome in private and charter schools.

Strengthening, not dismantling public schools should be a priority
across the political spectrum. Giving children a chance to learn from
talented teachers in schools that are warm, safe and well-equipped
should be both a “liberal” and a “conservative” priority. We hope that
ABC would recognize its responsibility to our children and our society
and provide viewers with balanced education coverage in the future.

”’Sheila Decter, is executive director of the Boston-based Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, and has worked as a social justice advocate for the past 30 years, following 12 years of college teaching. She can be reached via email at:”’ mailto:sheila@decter.org

”’Paul Dunphy, is a veteran journalist and senior policy analyst for the Boston-based coalition Citizens for Public Schools, and is well regarded for his research on charter schools and privatization. He can be reached via email at:”’ mailtopaul@citizensforpublicschools.org

”’HawaiiReporter.com reports the real news, and prints all editorials submitted, even if they do not represent the viewpoint of the editors, as long as they are written clearly. Send editorials to”’ mailto:Malia@HawaiiReporter.com