The recent conversations in the White House by President Trump’s press secretary and special adviser regarding the size of the crowd at the inauguration ceremony in which they coined the term “alternative facts” provided an entertaining, if not alarming, picture into the minds of our national leaders. I watched in wonder and, to be honest, with some confusion, as they tried to convince us, with straight faces no less, that there are alternate sets of facts and that we, the general public, should decide which sets we choose to believe. Now, I was raised by parents who taught me that the term “fact” was really pretty self-explanatory, and most dictionaries would seem to agree with my parents. The Oxford Dictionary, for example, says that a fact is “a thing that is indisputably the case.” Apparently, my parents and dictionary authors around the world were mistaken. Apparently, facts are open for interpretation.
Now, the mere mention of alternative facts by the president’s team sent the national media into apoplexy. It was as if the rules of political engagement had been rewritten by the Trump administration. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but dealing in alternative facts has been standard political practice for decades, and one certainly doesn’t have to go all the way to Washington D.C. to find politicians who uses the concept to their benefit. We have politicians right here in Ohio who have perfected the practice of using alternative facts in their attempts to convince us that the laws they create make any sense at all. The difference between President Trump’s team and other politicians is that his team is brazen enough to tell us up front that facts are negotiable. Most have those conversations behind closed doors.
There is an infinite list of wonderful examples of how our politicians use alternative facts here in the Buckeye State. In the world of education, for example, politicians have told us that they created charter schools out of necessity, because children should not be forced to attend failing public schools. They assured us that these charter schools would give children the opportunity to escape the poorly performing schools in which they were previously stuck to attend better performing charter schools. These same politicians have committed, actually a more accurate term would be wasted, millions and millions and millions of our tax dollars on policies intent on ensuring that these charter schools can flourish. Of course, the reality of the situation is that most children who are attending charter schools have left a higher performing public school to attend a poorer performing charter school. Now, you and I might consider it to be a lie when we are told that charter schools were created for a reason that is not true. Now we know it is just an alternative fact.
Politicians have also steadfastly referred to charter schools as public schools, even as they have created laws absolving them from following laws all other public entities must follow, and even as many charter schools are owned by private, for profit companies operated by very wealthy campaign contributors. The fact is, in many cases, about the only thing public about these privately owned charter schools is that they have been given access to tax dollars to use as they see fit with virtually no oversight. You and I might view politicians’ characterizations of charter schools as public schools as a lie. Wrong again; it is just an alternative fact.
Let’s look at a politician’s use of alternative facts that has nothing to do with charter schools. Senator Peggy Lehner, who is the head of the Senate Education Committee, was the primary sponsor for the law known as the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee.” The very title of this bill suggests that it guarantees that all third graders will be able to read at grade level, even though it does no such thing. At no time since this law’s inception has every third grader achieved the standard, nor is it even possible for every child to do so. So, this law is no guarantee at all. But, remember, it’s not dishonest to make a claim that is untrue. It’s an alternative fact.
Furthermore, Senator Lehner has pointed to the high passage rates of third graders in the area of reading after the implementation of her bill as proof that raising standards results in improved performance. But, the third grade reading results prove no such thing, because with the implementation of the “guarantee” came methods besides the state mandated tests by which third graders could achieve success. These methods, which were easier than the state tests, enabled students who couldn’t pass the test to be deemed successful. Apparently, in her zeal to convince us that raising expectations improves achievement, Senator Lehner forgot that very important fact; or maybe she just ignored it; or maybe she just considers it an alternative fact.
And, who among us oldsters can forget a certain former president wagging his finger at us and providing us with a few alternative facts of his own while explaining his relationship with a certain intern?
The list is endless.
So, let’s not pretend that the creation of alternative facts is a recent political phenomenon, that it is utilized exclusively by one political party or another, or that it is confined only to the world of education. Instead, let’s just refuse to accept that such a ridiculous notion even exists and treat it with the scorn it deserves.
Tom Dunn is the superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.