Washington Post: Maybe this teachers union needs a crash course in truth in advertising

May 2, 2018

  • Print
This article originated in the Washington Post from April 29, 2018.

Maybe this teachers union needs a crash course in truth in advertising

By Jay Mathews


I've been around. I know political statements and commercials often distort or ignore facts, such as Richard Nixon's "Checkers speech," which I watched live on TV when I was 7 years old.

So why can't I shrug off, as I usually do, my annoyance with such stuff in a new radio ad from the California Teachers Association? Here it is in full:

"They're lining up against our local public schools. One after another, out-of-state billionaires are trying to buy our politicians. Following the lead of Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, billionaires like Koch brothers allies Jim and Alice Walton have their own narrow education agenda to divert money out of our public schools and into their corporate charter schools. It's true. Out-of-state billionaires investing millions into politicians who will protect corporate-run charter schools that lack accountability.

"So as California chooses its next generation of leaders this election we must stand up to politicians who divert money out of our neighborhood public schools and say yes to leaders who value the promise of quality public education for all students no matter where they live. And leaders who always put kids before profits. Learn more at kidsnotprofits.com. Paid for by the California Teachers Association."

The spot is cleverly written. It never actually says charter schools -- public schools run ­independently of school districts -- are designed to make money. Instead, it calls them "corporate" or "corporate-run," not mentioning that many businesses don't focus on revenue. It leaves the unshakable impression that charters, which are usually nonunion, are pulling in big bucks for big firms, underlined by the campaign's slogan: Kids Not Profits.

Actually, 97 percent of California charter schools are nonprofit. The California Charter Schools Association said only 36 of the state's 1,275 charter schools are run by or affiliated with for-profit companies. Nationally, about 86 percent of charters are nonprofit.

I realize anti-charter spots like this appear all over the country. Some pro-charter groups also slam regular public schools with falsehoods, such as saying American schools are falling far behind the rest of the world.

My problem with this ad is personal. The California Teachers Association, usually called the CTA, is the largest state teachers organization in the country and was a big part of my growing up. Several wonderful teachers of mine were members, as was my mother. It has done much to raise teachers' salaries and benefits. CTA staff are known among California journalists for their intelligence and energy.

So why is an organization representing people dedicated to teaching the truth spreading falsehoods about charters? Stanford University research shows African American students doing significantly better in charters in California's urban centers and Hispanic students doing better in charters statewide, compared with their counterparts in regular public schools.

Most of the best teachers I know work in neighborhood public schools. But there are many others, just as dedicated and creative, who work in charters. The spot is broadcast in English and Spanish. It will confuse people who don't know that charter schools are also public. Tax dollars pay for them. In nearly every case, any child may enroll. Charters cannot pick the applicants they want. If oversubscribed, they must use randomized lotteries to select students.

A CTA spokeswoman said the association stood by its ad. She sent me a great deal of material that may inspire future columns.

I share the CTA's obvious dislike for for-profit charters, whose performance lags behind nonprofits. The best teachers I know want to help kids, not investors.

The California Charter Schools Association has proposed a bill that would prohibit charters from being operated by for-profit entities. Getting that passed would be better than making millions of Californians think all charters are spawned by evil profiteers.

My U.S. history teacher in high school, Al Ladendorff, was so dedicated to us writing the truth that he suggested we criticize the textbook. He would have given the CTA ad an F. I realize nearly everyone in politics puts out rubbish like this, but I think teachers should gently suggest the ad writers try again.