Two weeks ago, this newspaper printed a column by Jim Waters titled “Opponents’ fibs falter in view of school choice facts.” About midway through the article, Waters writes: “I challenge school choice opponents and legislators who are nervous about defending votes to fund charter schools in Kentucky....”
Before I directly address that challenge, let’s look briefly at Jim Waters, president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions (BIPPS). Waters and BIPPS might sound harmless, but they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. According to Source Watch, Waters and BIPPS receive funding from ultraconservative right-wing donors, including Charles Koch and the State Policy Network.
Waters is a Tea Party operative, and BIPPS’ agenda comes straight from the Tea Party playbook. For years, when right-to-work laws topped the Tea Party’s agenda, Waters constantly advocated right-to-work laws. In recent years, Waters has focused on charter schools.
Former Tea Party governor (R-KY) Matt Bevin championed charter schools before and after his election. Jim Waters was a common fixture at Bevin’s rallies in support of charter schools. Waters frequently was featured in TV news interviews, speaking in support of charter schools. Typically he was identified as an “education expert.”
According to his website, Waters has “significant previous media experience as a reporter, editor and broadcaster at newspapers and radio stations in Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio....” There is nothing in his background that remotely qualifies Waters as an education expert.
I called every TV news station in Louisville and Lexington and asked if they knew who Jim Waters really was, and why was he identified as an education expert? Amazingly, perhaps, not a single TV news producer knew anything about Jim Waters—only that he identified himself as an “education expert.” They requested, and I sent them, links to websites such as Source Watch that showed Waters is a political operative, and not an education expert. (Afterwards I rarely saw Waters in TV news interviews, and I never again saw him identified as an “education expert.”)
Jim Waters practices yellow journalism. According to Wikipedia: “Yellow journalism and the yellow press are American terms for journalism and associated newspapers that present little or no legitimate, well-researched news while instead using eye-catching headlines for increased sales. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, or sensationalism. By extension, the term yellow journalism is used today as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”
BIPPS was founded and is centered in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Smarter and better writers than I—namely, English professors from Western Kentucky University that I know personally—have written to the Bowling Green Daily News, decrying Waters’ shoddy (and yellow) journalism. Unfortunately, the Daily News‘ ultraconservative editor, Steve Gaines, always declined to print them, and eventually the goodly professors stopped writing.
I am not an English professor, but I know yellow journalism when I see it. Waters cherry-picks and presents specific details and information in a way that suits his needs, mindless or heedless of the axiom that states “correlation does not imply causation.” For example, one could state that, according to the National Weather Service, March is the rainiest month of the year in Nebraska. And, according to the Nebraska Pizza Council, more pizzas are sold in March than in any other month. One could then imply that Nebraskans buy more pizza in March because pizza is a comfort food that lifts their sagging, soggy spirits during rainy weather.
At first glance, that might make perfect sense to the reader. And it might even be true, or partially true. However, it might not be true at all. Nebraskans might buy more pizza in March because of basketball fans caught up in March Madness, and rain might not be a factor at all.
That’s how Waters made his case for right-to-work laws, and that’s how he is touting charter schools—by cherry-picking data and implying causation where it did not and does not exist.
Another unsavory technique employed by Jim Waters is to challenge anyone who disagrees with him and his advocacy of charter schools (or right-to-work laws, or whatever he’s being paid to advocate for at the time) to something like a “war of words.” Unfortunately, Waters is not seeking to initiate a meaningful, responsible dialog. Rather, he’s trying to pick a fight to gain more readers.
In column after column, every time I see Waters in the paper, always he is touting charter schools. Surely I’m not the only one tired of reading his lame and monotonous arguments for charter schools. But Waters is nothing if not media savvy. He knows that there is nothing more compelling than conflict, so he’s always issuing a challenge, always looking to pick a fight.
If no one accepts Jim Waters’ challenge, should we assume it’s because he is right? Not hardly—
Why should I, or anyone, rise to that challenge? Ultimately it would benefit Jim Waters and his cause. Waters gets paid to promote charter schools. I don’t know anyone, including me, who is paid to promote public schools (or obstruct charter schools). I write primarily to entertain my readers. To that end, I provide variety in my columns. Engaging in some kind of endless war of words with Jim Waters on the topic of charter schools would be unpleasant for me and unfair to my readers.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (2016), by Jane Mayer, describes a network of extremely wealthy conservative Republicans, including Charles and David Koch, who have funded organizations that work to influence academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and the American presidency for their own benefit. According to Wikipedia: “Mayer particularly discusses the Koch family and their political activities, along with Richard Mellon Scaife, John M. Olin, the Bradley brothers, the DeVos and Coors families and their related foundations.”
These are the kind of people who pay Jim Waters to advocate for charter schools. These so-called “free market capitalists” fundamentally believe in the privatization of everything, including education. According to educationdata.org: “Federal, state, and local governments spend $720.9 billion, or $14,840 per pupil, to fund K-12 public education.” Simply put, free market capitalists want to get their hands on a share of that money.
These are the philosophical and spiritual descendants of conservatives who opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s—and who continue to oppose it to this day. These are the people who, every so often, try to privatize Social Security. (The last major effort to privatize Social Security was made by President George W. Bush in 2005. It was highly unpopular and got very little support.) Just as with public education, free market capitalists want those billions of dollars out of the Social Security trust fund, and into the hands of private citizens.
Jim Waters supports charter schools. In column after column, he writes that very same thing, employing the same sordid writing techniques. I wish he would spare us his awful yellow journalism and publish instead a half-page ad in gigantic block letters: JIM WATERS SUPPORTS CHARTER SCHOOLS.
Finally, in fairness to Jim Waters and his column, I feel I should mention one singular and undeniable fact: Jim Waters supports charter schools.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.