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ALLEGEDLY, MILWAUKEE’S FINEST! When Tierney praised Milwaukee’s vouchers, an expert pithily answered: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 22, 2006

SOMETHING’S MISSING: For those who like to read ahead, this front-page report in this morning’s Post is quite remarkable—because of something that’s missing. The state of Florida will now give raises to teachers who improve student test scores. But can you spot the amazing omission in this long and detailed report? We’ll return to this story later this week. In the meantime, can you see what is missing?

TWO PICTURES—ONE OF THEM ACCURATE: In Washington, Ezra Klein is now simply “The Man.” He’s known as “The Answer”—and, of course, as “Dr. K.” Because Klein’s American Prospect cover story represents such a milestone, we’ll invite you to ponder what it says one more time. Finally—and only seven years late!—a liberal journal has printed an accurate summary of what occurred during Campaign 2000. As we start, Klein is describing an Al Gore speech from October:

KLEIN (4/06): The address was the keynote for the We Media conference, held at the Associated Press headquarters in New York last October and attended by an audience that included both old media luminaries and new media innovators. In attendance were Tom Curley, president of the AP, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all leading lights of a media establishment that, five years earlier, had deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, spinning each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore.
Omigod! With perfect accuracy, Klein notes that the “media establishment”—not the conservative press corps—went after Gore in Campaign 2000. Indeed, they declared themselves his “executioner,” Klein quite accurately says. Klein even names the type of news orgs which cast themselves in this role—the Associated Press, CBS News, and the New York Times. (In fairness, CBS played a minor role.) In fact, the Washington Post was plainly the leading player in the two-year War Against Gore—the astounding press corps war which sent George Bush to the White House. But Klein names establishment media orgs—he doesn’t try to pin this war on conservative organs. Starting in March 1999, the Washington Post played the leading role in this relentless spin campaign—and the Washington Times was not influential. This remarkable press event changed the course of American history—and it was conducted by the “media establishment,” exactly as “The Doctor” says. For reasons only they can explain, your liberal organs—and your liberal pundits—have refused to discuss this major fact until now. All praise, then, to The American Prospect for putting Klein’s piece into print.

But omigod! Others cling to inaccurate stories. Yesterday, Digby told the familiar alternate tale—a tale which is simply inaccurate. Why are liberals so in love with this misleading recitation?

DIGBY (3/21/06): I will always have a great fondness for Al Gore. In 2000 I watched him get trashed by a ruthless Right Wing Noise Machine and a sophomoric press corps who were determined to punish him for Clinton's sins (which only they and the very right wing of the Republican party felt required punishment in the first place.) It was one of the most god-awful displays of character assassination we've ever seen—and the way it ended, with the Republicans pulling every lever of brute institutional power they had to seize the office, had to have been a terrible, dispiriting event. I know how bad I felt. I can only imagine the searing disappointment he must have endured.
Digby’s fondness is duly noted. But instead of offering this brand of boo-hooing, couldn’t we just try telling the truth? Like Klein, Digby starts by understating this story—the War Against Gore to which he refers began in full fury in March 1999, and continued unabated for the next twenty months, right through November 2000. And we hate to tell you, but it wasn’t conducted by a “Right Wing Noise Machine” with a sophomoric press corps tagging along. Yes, the RNC played a role at the start—but by the fall of 1999, Chairman Jim Nicholson was running hard just to keep up with the Gore-bashing stories being churned by the big mainstream organs. For unknown reasons, people like Digby—for all their fondness—love to misreport his story. We’re tired of seeing young liberal readers fed this pleasing but bogus tale. What makes it so hard to tell the truth about this critical piece of history? “Dr. K” does. See above.

Would it kill us if we just typed the truth? Starting in March 1999, Candidate Gore was assailed by a remarkable slander campaign—a campaign conducted by the mainstream media, not by conservative organs. Clearly, the Washington Post was the leading player, followed by the New York Times—and the Boston Globe saved the day in mid-September 2000, when Gore was pulling away in the polls. (Robert Novak, 9/7/00: “Undeniable panic is gripping partisan Republicans, from rank-and-file voters to seasoned political operatives, with two full months left before the presidential election.”) At that point, the Globe’s Walter Robinson launched the “doggy-pill” story; one day later, USA Today’s Walter Shapiro invented the “union lullaby” scandal—and mainstream pundits feigned High Outrage once again. The polls turned around within a week, leading to the remarkable spinning which followed Bush and Gore’s first debate. By the way, this spinning was done by mainstream pundits—not by a Right Wing Machine.

Walter Shapiro and Walter Robinson are not the “Right Wing Noise Machine.” They aren’t Rush Limbaugh. They aren’t Fox News. And they aren’t the Washington Times—a paper which never succeeded (although it tried) in getting its GoreSlanders into the mix. (Al Gore is a slumlord went nowhere.) Would it kill us to stick our fondness where the sun doesn’t shine and tell young readers who come to our sites the actual truth about their own recent history? To his vast credit, Ezra Klein has now done just that. And only 7 years late!

Klein and Digby recall the same events. Only one of their stories is accurate. This war was run by the “establishment media.” With Dr. K now leading the break, what makes it so hard to just say this?

ALL PRAISE TO MIKE TOMASKY TOO: Yes, he’s a Morgantown elitist. But all praise to Mike Tomasky! He put Klein’s true story into print.

WHAT FINEMAN SAID: Why did pundits turn on Gore in mid-September 2000? Why did they run with the ludicrous doggy pill/union lullaby pseudo-scandals? Uh-oh! On September 21, 2000, Brian Williams actually asked. And Howard Fineman answered:

WILLIAMS (9/21/00): Howard, I don’t know of any kind of conspiratorial, Trilateral Commission-like council meetings in the news media, but you bring up an interesting point and boy, it sure does seem true over the years that the news media almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog. What’s that about?

FINEMAN: Well, what it’s about is the relentless search for news and the relentless search for friction in the story. I don’t think the media was going to allow, just by its nature, the next seven weeks, the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign, to be all about Al Gore’s relentless triumphant march to the presidency. We want a race, I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it’s that we like to see a contest and we like to see it down to the end if we can.

Gore had been pulling away in the polls; Fineman said “the media” just wasn’t going to allow it. Of course, since these same media had been trashing Gore for the better part of two years, this explanation was relatively benign. But Brian Williams and Howard Fineman are not the Right Wing Noise Machine. On the other hand, they are the people who conducted the war which Digby recalls. This war—which put George Bush in the White House—was one of the most remarkable press events in our history. Why is it still so g*d-damned hard to tell our readers who waged it?

Special report: Allegedly, Milwaukee’s finest!

PART 2—ANRIG ANSWERS: Are John Tierney’s allegations correct? As we noted in yesterday’s HOWLER, the New York Times scribe is wonderfully certain; vouchers have solved the problem of low-income schools, and the Milwaukee experience has proved it. On March 7, he explained it all in his Times column, announcing that the millennium has arrived—if you are a low-income kid on the near north side of Milwaukee (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/21/06). “[I]f you want to see inner-city children getting a good education, it’s the most beautiful spot in America,” he wrote, describing Milwaukee’s long experiment with vouchers. And he quoted an advocate of the city’s voucher program. “We've seen what school choice can do,” said Gregory Stanford, an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “It's impressive to go around to the voucher schools and see kids learning.”

If those claims are true, they’re important. In fact, because these claims are so important, they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. For what it’s worth, Milwaukee has not given up on its 16-year-old program, a point Tierney makes in his column. And Stanford isn’t the only person who says that the program is working, although some early advocates of Milwaukee vouchers have become a bit chastened over time. Tierney’s column bore a tangy headline—“City Schools That Work,” it proclaimed. But are Milwaukee’s voucher schools really producing impressive results? Tierney says these schools are Milwaukee’s finest. But are his allegations correct?

To what extent is Tierney on target? Yesterday, we recorded a few of our own instant reactions to his column. But on the day Tierney’s piece appeared, Gregory Anrig (The Century Foundation) critiqued it quite harshly at TPM Café. For those who want to sort the truth about Milwaukee’s voucher experience, a few of Anrig’s basic critiques should be placed on the record. Anrig’s pithy piece can be read in full here; we’ll pick and choose from its highlights.

First, a remarkable fact about Milwaukee’s program; there is no mandatory testing in the schools which receive voucher students. Anrig explains this quite concisely. Let’s defer to his own words:

ANRIG (3/7/06): Nowhere in his column does Tierney mention the rather pertinent detail that when Milwaukee’s voucher program was greatly expanded in [1995] to include religious schools, the state stopped testing the students who attended the private schools. That, of course, makes comparisons between their performance and those of the public schools impossible. One of the reasons why the decision was made against subjecting the private schools to the same testing requirements as the public schools is that the results when the program was much smaller were, at best, inconclusive. It was the voucher advocates in state government who decided against measuring whether the idea actually worked or not. So today there’s no hard data to go on.
For the record, many Milwaukee schools which enroll voucher students do conduct testing programs on their own. But the state decided against systematic testing—a fact which we find quite remarkable. This makes it hard to gather data about how well voucher students have done.

Second, Anrig discusses one of the studies Tierney cited in his column. Again, he shows true pith:

ANRIG: Tierney mentions an analysis by Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby that claims to show that public schools in Milwaukee that were subject to the greatest degree of competition from vouchers performed better—suggesting that market forces have a positive impact on the schools. But Hoxby herself has acknowledged that if the students moving from the public schools to the private schools had lower than average test scores in the first place, that alone would help to elevate the public school test scores. A recent RAND report on charter schools found that the students moving out of public schools were indeed more likely to have lower scores.
Hoxby was working with old and limited data, in part due to factors explained above. Did scores bump up in public schools after the voucher program began? As Anrig notes, that may have happened because the students who left these schools with vouchers had below-average test scores. And as we said yesterday: A bump in public school test scores may have occurred because some schools, feeling pressured by vouchers, began to get a bit “creative” with their own testing programs. Did some of Milwaukee’s public schools break a few rules in response to the pressure? We don’t have the slightest idea. But we’d say the chances are good—although researchers rarely seem to consider such an obvious fact of nature.

And uh-oh! Anrig challenges Joseph Viteritti, a national voucher advocate who was quoted in Tierney’s column. As noted yesterday, Viteritti told Tierney that “all the good research, including the voucher opponents’ work, shows that kids who accept vouchers are doing at least as well as their public school peers.” Wrong again, says Anrig:

ANRIG: Actually, what the lion’s share of studies conducted in other locations by researchers who have not received support from right-wing foundations found is that students receiving vouchers do no better than comparable students who remain in public schools. That means the experiment has failed...Over the years, if a particular liberal school reform initiative didn’t improve outcomes, conservatives forcefully pounced on those research findings as evidence of failure. And they were right.
Note Anrig’s attention to how voucher kids do as opposed to “comparable students” in public schools. (Viteritti’s statement only talks about “peers.”) If these groups do equally well, the experiment has failed, Anrig says. To consider the importance of Anrig’s distinction, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/06.

Please note: None of this means that vouchers couldn’t be productive or helpful in some situation. But clearly, Anrig’s critique undermines the certainty of Tierney’s allegations. Because these matters are so important, pundits like Tierney should be required to rein in their flights of high fancy.

Meanwhile, Anrig makes an excellent suggestion—a suggestion we’ve eagerly taken. “Given the absence of testing results, Tierney might have at least referred to the 7-part series in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last June,” Anrig writes. “The reporters personally visited all but nine of the 115 private voucher schools [in Milwaukee] to try to assess their quality...Much of what they found undercuts Tierney’s claim that ‘the results so far in Milwaukee and other cities are more than enough to declare vouchers a success.’” Indeed, we think Anrig under-states here; we were shocked by much that we read in this remarkable series. Like Duke Helfand’s recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, this was an outstanding report—a report which produced little national buzz. Tomorrow, we’ll walk you through some of the Journal-Sentinel’s reporting. Are these voucher schools really Milwaukee’s finest? Tierney’s allegation suffers quite badly in the face of this detailed reports.

THE WAY WE WERE: We made one change in Anrig’s report (see above). At TPM, Anrig says the state stopped testing the voucher students in 1998. We’re assuming that was a typo; the Journal-Sentinel states, several times, that this happened in 1995. Journal-Sentinel, 6/12/05: “There has been almost no research using fresh data about the performance of students in voucher schools since 1995, when the state Legislature dropped a requirement that there be an annual performance report on the schools.” One day later, the paper said it again: “No research has been done using data on student performance in voucher schools since 1995, when a state requirement for an annual research report ended.”

TOMORROW—PART 3: Milwaukee’s worst.

FRIDAY—PART 4: Why we’ve never really expected that vouchers would give us The Answer.