School Choice’s Manufactured Popularity

Bill Crawford wrote an important piece last week called “Truth Management Skews Reality.” In it, he details the process by which political interest groups manufacture their own versions of reality. For example, he cites a study of the tobacco industry which found they use deceptive practices to support their claims. He explains:

“The tobacco companies managed truth by getting institutes and research centers, which they funded directly and indirectly, to publish studies showing tobacco usage to be not very harmful. They then used these deceitful studies and powerful publicity to manipulate users and politicians into believing that smoking was safe.”

The problem goes much further than just the tobacco industry, as Crawford points out:

“Senators, congressmen, and their staffs are too busy to do much research. So, they rely on information from lobbyists who get their information from these biased sources.

‘Policy institutes and research centers actuated by pre-conceived notions have begun cropping up to shape “truth” at the state level too. Legislators have even less time and resources than congressmen to research complex issues.”

Our lawmakers in Jackson are no strangers to the process. They, too, rely on the information given to them by outside groups and lobbyists. This becomes particularly important when we consider the education policy being introduced in this legislative session.

Empower Mississippi, the education lobbying firm with 98% of its bankroll coming from outside Mississippi, are the chief bugs in our politicians’ ears. Empower Mississippi’s solution to our “failing schools” is the so-called “school choice” movement, a scheme cooked up in corporate boardrooms and on the notepads of Friedmanian economists who have never taught a day in their lives. Though school choice continues to offer case after case after case where it has proven a failure, Mississippi lawmakers seem hellbent on abandoning our own schools to bring in hucksters who have failed everywhere else.

Empower Mississippi’s president, Grant Callen, has been everywhere this week touting a recent poll “showing 78% support among Mississippians for school choice.” He’s written blog posts, newspaper columns- he’s even been on SuperTalk Mississippi to proclaim the good news of school choice, as evidenced in this poll. The poll was conducted by OnMessage Inc.

If we follow Crawford’s lead, we must consider the source of the information. Who are OnMessage Inc.? As Amanda Koonlaba points out in a brilliant recent blog post,

OnMessage Inc., is a political consulting company in Alexandria, VA, that boasts the Alliance for School Choice, the Walton Family Foundation, Governor Bobby Jindal, and Lieutenant Governor Tate Reeves as clients. This company claims to  “play aggressive offense.” The website even states, “And most of all, we’re in it to win.” This company makes money influencing voters. On the page of the website that refers to opinion research, the company states, “We take your principles, your experience, and your opponent’s weaknesses to develop a winning message plan that the voters will embrace.”

So, exactly the kind of misinformation Crawford is warning us about.

The Report

If you actually read the report from OnMessage, you see the poll questions are completely loaded with biased preambles and utopian language to sway the respondents to the answers they want.

Take this one:

“As you may know, charter schools are independent public schools that are free to be more innovative and are held accountable for improved student achievement. In general, do you favor or oppose the idea of charter schools?”

Independent. Free. More innovative. Held accountable. It practically sounds like public schools are mindless jails, to hear this question! Yeah, I support whatever this pleasant-sounding alternative is!

Later in the survey:

“Generally speaking, would you favor creating public charter schools only in certain areas of the state, such as those in failing school districts, or would you favor creating public charter schools throughout the entire state so more families could have school options for their children?”

Did you catch it? Do you favor creating charter schools here, or here? If you’re one of the 800 Mississippians taking this phone survey, there’s no longer any option to strengthen your own public school. The charter schools are coming. Where would you like them?

Here’s the thing- in the psychology of a long survey like this one, when you’re looking for the answers you want, those kinds of subliminal mind games actually matter. Survey creators do that on purpose.

And it shows.

The report doesn’t explicitly state the order the questions were asked, but they make a lot of sense in the progression given.  The first and second questions in the report were about how public schools in our state are doing.

“Students receive letter grades of A, B, C, D or F to grade the quality of their work. If you were to grade public schools in Mississippi the same way, what letter grade do you think they deserve?” (answers given)

‘More specifically, what grade would you give the public schools in your community?”

A: 20%
B: 31%
C: 26%
D: 12%
F: 6%
DK/Refuse: 9%

Only 18% of the respondents gave their local public schools D’s or F’s.

77% gave their public schools a C or higher.

But by the end of the survey, the school choice messaging had worn them down.

Here are the last two questions:

“Thinking generally, if it were your decision and you could select any type of school for your child to attend completely free of cost, what type of school would you select in order to obtain the best education for your child? Would it be a…”

Traditional Public School:  41%
Private School: 31%
Home School: 5%
Public Charter School: 15%
Virtual Charter School: 2%
Other: 3%
DK/Refuse: 4%

“Would you be more or less likely to support a candidate for the state legislature who supports school choice?”

More Likely: 69%
Less Likely: 16%
No Difference: 7%
DK/Refuse: 9%

Even though only 15% of the respondents would send their own children to a charter school, 69% were more likely to support a school choice candidate.

But the school choice lobby got the numbers they wanted.

phil-bryant-deborah-bryant-william-waller-jr-50706c454da5555eNow, even though 77% of Mississippians surveyed by a school choice messaging group said their local schools are not failing, even though only 15% of respondents would send their own children to charter schools, Governor Bryant and his team can cram school choice down our throats, all the while saying, “You asked for it.”

As the message wars continue, let us heed the words of Bill Crawford:

“…whether it’s Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, the NRA or the AARP, big business or big government, or a state policy institute, realize their propensity to engage in truth management…for their benefit, not yours.

‘Don’t be duped. As Ronald Reagan insisted, verify.”

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