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Letter: Educational straw man nothing but chaff

Posted: September 17, 2010 12:14 p.m.
Updated: September 17, 2010 12:13 p.m.

It is an accepted truth that one of the best ways to win or influence a debate is to frame the issue in your own terms.
Attempting to do just that, Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan has gratuitously penned an article entitled “Debunking Election Year Myths” published in the Camden Chronicle-Independent and also posted on the Kershaw County School District website. Unfortunately, Dr. Morgan’s article drifts into another time-tested debate technique-that of building up and demolishing a false “straw man” argument when you have no rebuttal of the real topic at hand.

Specifically, Dr. Morgan claims that South Carolinians are deluded by education issue sound bites built around political campaign myths that fall apart under scrutiny. Without citing even one instance of any of these “myths” being employed in our region’s on-going political campaigns, Dr. Morgan constructs a straw man the Wizard of Oz would be proud of, and then tries to knock the stuffing out of it.

Dr. Morgan’s “myths” are these:

“Only 45 cents of every tax dollar for education goes to the classroom.”

“Funding for education has actually increased over the past two years.”

“Tax credits for private schools will reduce costs for school district.”

“Half of South Carolina’s students drop out of school.”

First let us ask, where in anyone’s Kershaw County campaigning are these “myths” being offered up as an electoral platform? Have there been actual speeches employing these arguments, or is the only place these four “sound bites” are being circulating is in the fervid imagination of nervous career bureaucrats?

Second, let us examine the accuracy of these supposed myths. According to Dr. Morgan’s own words, items one and two are “technically correct.” This would seem to belie the definition of “myth” -- an invented story, something purely fabulous or having no existence in fact. Perhaps Dr. Morgan is confusing untrue with inconvenient, but that is another matter.

In as much the KCSD Superintendent confirms that these first two “myth” statements are “technically accurate,” then perhaps it is entirely appropriate to use them as campaign talking points.

To belabor a point, myth number three is a non-issue in this campaign season. But Dr. Morgan seems to be saying that KCSD cannot save money educating fewer students. This might be a topic to remember the next time KCSD claims to need more funding because it must educate more students. The candidates I will support in November agree that no matter how much or how little funding is reaching our school district districts, the funding received can and should be spent more effectively. This is the real issue.

Myth number four is, yet again, not a campaign issue. But Dr. Morgan’s employment of it raises a very good point. In his chaff-ridden straw man, South Carolina is performing far better than critics claim because nearly 75 percent of students entering high school graduate high school, placing our state in the “top 25 percent” of the country. Using these same figures, I say that percentage is shameful. South Carolina schools in general and Kershaw County schools in particular should not be shooting for the top half, top third, or top 25 percent of anything; our children deserve the best education possible, and that means aiming to be number 1. We may not achieve it even with our best efforts, but not even aspiring to excellence ensures we will fall short.

I find Dr. Morgan’s imaginative diatribe to be an entirely inappropriate use of Kershaw County School District time, funds, and Internet resources. When Dr. Morgan is ready to engage in a political campaign, he should do it on his own time and his own dime.

Were I to grade this article as one might grade a student paper, I would give it a “D” for disingenuous. Coming from the county’s top education official, it is a poor example of rhetoric, composition, and logic for our students to follow. But it serves as an excellent though unnecessary reminder of the need for reform and improvement of our students’ education.

Straw men make good scarecrows, but terrible debating points.

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