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Waiting for facts

A Fort Wayne event billed as a school choice debate this week turned out to be more of a platform to promote school choice than debate its constitutionality or merits. Sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Fort Wayne, the intent seemed to be an effort to put public schools on the defensive – a trap that panelist Mark GiaQuinta, president of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board, couldn't escape.

FWCS board member Julie Hollingsworth described it best, calling GiaQuinta "the public education meat in a school choice sandwich."

The questions clearly favored the pro-voucher side, including this one: "In the film 'Waiting for Superman,' the following statistics are presented from the state of Illinois:

One out of every 57 doctors are fired, One out of every 97 lawyers are fired, but only one out of every 2,500 teachers are fired. Critics of our current educational system often focus on the inability to get rid of underperforming teachers as well as the inability to reward outstanding teachers as key impediments to improving our schools Are school choice programs the only way to address these issues? If not, what other solutions exist?"

Lots of problems here, beginning with the fact that the moderator accepted the film's assertion as fact and then posed his questions on that basis. The "statistics" cited sounded odd, and turns out – they are. Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters did the fact-checking that others failed to do.

The figures apparently come from a 2007 article from the Small Newspaper Group, which specified the time period and defined "fired" in terms of licensing for doctors, lawyers and teachers.

"The overall attrition rate of teachers is much higher – many of whom would probably otherwise be cited for poor performance, but who leave the profession either willingly, or 'counseled' out," writes Haimson, after some serious number-crunching. "In New York City, the four year attrition rate is more than 40 percent -- a mind-boggling figure."

"In reality, one of the most serious problems plaguing our urban schools, along with excessive class sizes, overcrowding, and poor support for teachers and students, is the fact that we have far too many inexperienced educators revolving through our high-needs schools each year," she writes.

"Can you imagine if 40 percent of physicians or attorneys left their jobs after four years? A national emergency would be declared, with a commission appointed to find out how their working conditions could be improved," Haimson writes at The Huffington Post.

Sadly, the just-ended session of the Indiana General Assembly, which produced the broadest public voucher program in the country, included as little effort at fact-checking as the so-called statistics in "Waiting for Superman." Much of the bad law-making was based on the same flawed statistics aired in "Waiting for Superman" and reproduced, like an urban legend, at the school choice debate.

One other interesting point did emerge from the session: Panelist Jonathan Hancock, headmaster of Fort Wayne's independent Canterbury School, said his school will not accept vouchers under the new Indiana program.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at