Monday, November 2, 2015

Being true to your school, part two: fact/value/policy

Today's speaker says "It is a fact" with all the gravity and air of finality with which his less secular-minded ancestor would have said "It is the truth." ..... Today when the average citizen says "It is a fact" or says he "knows the facts in the case," he means that he has the kind of knowledge to which all other knowledge must defer. - Richard M. Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric

Among my favorite thought parables is G.E.M. Anscombe's little story of the potted flower. She uses it to make a point regarding the limits of "facts" in explaining conduct - and by extension, I think, formulating policy.

The story poses a simple question: Do I water the flower in a flower pot on the window sill because I understand that the flower needs water to survive? She concludes that knowledge of that fact is not sufficient to account for why I might water the flower. She observes instead that I water the flower because I want the flower to survive and know that for it to survive I must water it.

In other words, the action of watering the flower is not entailed in the fact that the flower needs water. Some end-in-view must also be present for the facts to motivate the action. Further, that end-in-view is itself a framed in values that give pursuit of that end a motive.

The "facts" themselves are rarely - if ever - sufficient motive for action, or sufficient to explain an action. Likewise, the "facts" themselves are rarely - if ever - sufficient justification for a policy. But that has been the determined strategy of the Rochester Public Schools regarding the property tax levy referendum.

When the school board decided it had worked so hard to set the levy that it should just leave it to the administration to explain it, it handed over to the administration a strategy that could by law only provide "factual information" related to the referendum. The district has done its best to make a virtue of it.

The "independent" group formed in support of the referendum has also embraced the limitations of the district administration, somehow hoping that the "facts" will speak for themselves. For example, much is made of the "fact" of state averages and, that when it comes to funding, our district levels are below that state average. Even the district's consultants concluded in their survey research that: "Reminding voters that a cost of $183 brings the cost of the levy to the state average has no impact on the level of support." Perhaps because the salient issue is not factual: "above or below average"; but rather, policy: "how much is enough."

Surprisingly the district as the arbiters of fact uncovered no "factual information" that would lead one to question the need for an increase in the property tax levy or an increase to the levels proposed by the referendum. Are there no such "facts"? None? At all?

Wondering at the apparent dearth of any facts to the contrary is not the same as saying that the district is being consciously disingenuous or intentionally deceptive in their role as "suppliers of factual information". It's too much to expect of the district to aid in providing the factual basis for opposing it's own referendum. Isn't it?

At any rate, the district and their supporters make far too much of what they think the facts might show (e.g. average state levies); probably know far too well that the issue turns on appeals not at all "factual" (e.g. do it for the children); and, offer up implicit policy statements that are given the aura of  "fact" (e.g., keeping class sizes small).

Whether you are inclined toward voting yes or no, the attempt to reduce the referendum decision to the "facts" diverts us from questions that we should be asking and assumes answers to questions that go unasked. For example:
When school finances are limited, the cost-benefit test any educational policy must pass is not “Does this policy have any positive effect?” but rather “Is this policy the most productive use of these educational dollars?” Assuming even the largest class-size effects, such as the STAR results, class-size mandates must still be considered in the context of alternative uses of tax dollars for education.  Will a dollar spent on class-size reduction generate as much return as a dollar spent on: raising teacher salaries, implementing better curriculum, strengthening early childhood programs, providing more frequent assessment results to teachers to help guide instruction, investments in educational technology, etc.? 
The same cost-benefit test can be applied to any of the alternative uses of tax dollars listed above. Alternatives that are before many school districts including ISD 535.

"Facts are stubborn things," observed Ronald Reagan, no it was John Adams, or was it Tobias Smollett, or Alain-René Lesage, or maybe Jared Elliot? Well, if not stubborn, facts can indeed be obstinate. Anyway can we all agree with Patrick Moynihan that, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." - unless, of course, it was James Schlesinger who said it first or was it Bernard Baruch? Well, maybe we can at least agree that in the end we all choose when to cease looking for the "facts" and get on with it.

Those who show up at the polls will decide the referendum issue. That decision will establish another very consequential "fact". Based on that fact, we should pose to the absent school board the questions that were left unasked or sent begging by their "factual" referendum campaign.

[To be concluded in Being true to your school, part last: money/mission]

No comments:

Post a Comment