Healthy civic engagement or polarizing self-interest? Let’s give both sides a fair hearing

August 27, 2018

Brandon Dutcher

“At least seven Oklahoma public school districts, including the state's two largest, have scheduled an off day for Nov. 6 in order to encourage teachers and staff to vote in that day's elections,” The Oklahoman reported July 30 (“Several Oklahoma school districts plan Election Day holiday”).

The 615-word story quoted four sources—a public school teacher, a public school board member, a school-employee labor union leader, and a liberal activist. Unsurprisingly, all four favor the idea of closing public schools on Election Day. Other recent news stories I’ve seen—from the Associated Press, the Tulsa World, the Ada News, KTEN, and News on 6, for example—also cast the idea in a positive light.

Is no one opposed to the idea? Readers and viewers can’t be blamed for wondering.

Fortunately, thoughtful spokesmen for the other side of an issue can sometimes break through by taking their case directly to the op-ed page. “School districts should not close schools on Election Day for the express purpose of increasing their employees’ political clout,” political scientist Greg Forster writes in the state’s largest newspaper. “It would not just inconvenience parents and thus make it harder, not easier, for everyone else to vote. It would also politicize and polarize public schools even worse than they already are.”

Empowering greater civic involvement for everyone across the board is a fine idea. Empowering greater civic involvement for one selected group alone, expressly so it can advocate more effectively for bigger budgets and less accountability for itself at everyone else’s expense, may sound noble to those in that group. However, the rest of us may be forgiven if we see it as more self-interested than noble. That’s doubly true when a group increases its own power to vote at the expense of everyone else’s power to vote. Parents who don’t work for schools don’t have the luxury of getting the day off work. Now they will have to find child care. Voting on top of that? Good luck. You’re on your own.

The more long-term danger is that educational special interests are crossing an important line. School employees organizing outside of school to advocate their own interests is just ordinary politics in a democracy. It’s not pretty, but in the rough and tumble of democracy, not much is. Running the schools themselves with institutional policies designed—explicitly—to maximize school employees’ political power at everyone else’s expense is another matter. Now they’re using our tax dollars to create a political machine designed to extract ever-more tax dollars for themselves. The rest of us are allowed to notice this.

We’re also allowed to notice the story selection and narrative frameworks of our media gatekeepers. Sometimes it seems as if some reporters and editors have forgotten a large portion of their customer base. As I’ve pointed out before:

The phrase “regulatory capture” describes a situation in which a government agency, board, or commission ceases to act in the public interest and instead starts to favor the special interests it is supposed to be regulating. Regrettably, there’s an equivalent phenomenon in journalism. Reporters develop incestuous relationships with their sources, especially sources in government, and over time they seem to be writing more for their sources than for their customers. The problem is exacerbated when the reporter’s liberal or center-left worldview is already predisposed to align with that of the sources.

Granted, we’ve only seen the first round of these schools-closed-for-Election-Day stories, and perhaps it’s understandable that these initial explanatory reports might tend to be one-sided. But it’s only August. More of these news reports will appear in broadcast, print, and online media in the weeks ahead. At a time when the news media’s trust rating is underwater among Oklahoma voters, and the Tulsa World’s Warren Buffett is saying newspapers are doomed, reporters and their editors—now more than ever—should strive for balance.