Analysis: Like ‘Death Tax,’ ‘Voucher School’ Is a Phrase That Aims for the Gut. It May Also Be ‘Fake News’
Updated on December 20th.
Calling for the attention of Frank Luntz.
An enlightening analysis conducted by Rebecca Klein of the Huffington Post recently shed light on the concerning lessons taught in private schools operated by evangelical churches. The article strongly argued that tax dollars in states that provide tuition vouchers to families who choose these schools are inadvertently supporting extremist curricula.
For instance, course catalogues examined by HuffPo included topics such as "Satan Created Psychology" and slavery being one of the main causes behind the "War Between the States." Another possible explanation? "God may have also been punishing people with the war, as it was preceded by a time of ‘religious apostasy and cultism.’"
However, the publication may have biased the story with the use of a loaded phrase to characterize these schools. The headline states, "Voucher Schools Championed by Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies."
The word "lies" is the crux of an ongoing debate about journalistic standards and linguistic precision, which was further escalated by Donald Trump’s presidency.
But what exactly is a voucher school? Is it a class of schools with a widely agreed-upon definition, or a political term used for certain schools? Initially referred to as chartered schools, these schools are officially constituted by a charter document that outlines their governance structure. Boarding schools, on the other hand, provide students with room and board in addition to education.
However, a voucher school can either refer to a private school, regardless of its identity, or a private school that accepts students with tuition vouchers. The term implies that the school was established to take advantage of public funds allocated for private school education.
The article describes these schools as either participating in a state’s voucher program or accepting families who have been granted tuition vouchers for private schools. This description is more accurate, albeit less attention-grabbing than the headline’s inclusion of voucher schools alongside Betsy DeVos, the US Education Secretary, who supports vouchers and has a strong online presence, as well as the word "lies."
A potential danger is that the public, already understandably confused about the distinctions between different types of schools falling under the umbrella of "school choice," may become even more confused. This confusion extends to the question of whether these distinctions actually matter. Particularly, Betsy DeVos’s advocacy for the term "school choice" has blurred the boundaries between various schools of choice, including public charter schools, district-run magnet schools, and even traditional public schools that accept students from other districts.
The article rightfully highlights the abuses and problematic curriculum found in some of these schools, and deserves commendation for its investigative reporting. However, the use of a term like "voucher schools" runs the risk of unjustly tarnishing all schools, including secular private schools that uphold rigorous academic standards.
Now, back to Frank Luntz. Luntz, a conservative Fox News commentator, political messaging expert, and pollster for figures such as Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and Ross Perot, is credited with popularizing the term "death tax" as a replacement for "estate tax," among other phrases designed to evoke emotional rather than intellectual responses from the public. The subtitle of his influential work on messaging is "It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear."
The most prominent use of the term "voucher schools" that we found was in a series of 2012 position papers by the Democracy and Education Research Group, a joint effort by the ACLU of Wisconsin and the Milwaukee branch of the American Federation of Teachers to challenge Milwaukee’s controversial private school voucher program.
We inquired about the Huffington Post’s decision to use this phrase, but did not receive an explanation. It is possible that the responsibility for including the term in the headline lies with a copy editor or another member of the editorial team, although Klein used it in the body of the article as well.
To gain further insight, we consulted three education policy advocates known for their differing views. Michael Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, was the first to respond. "Among school choice supporters, it is generally seen as derogatory," he stated. "This is because ‘vouchers’ does not poll well, while terms like ‘scholarships’ do. However, I admit to using it myself on occasion out of laziness. It refers to private schools that accept vouchers."
Andy Rotherham, Co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners and a member of board, expressed a similar sentiment, despite his lack of enthusiasm for vouchers. Lars Esdal, Executive Director of Education Evolving, an organization focused on teacher-led schools, also agreed with this view.
Naturally, if the term "voucher school" becomes widely known, alongside phrases like "corporate reform" and "school privatization," it would not be the first time that the intended meaning does not align with the interpretation.
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