Analysis: Who gets a microphone in the education debate?

Wayne Hoffman, my old Idaho Statesman colleague, offered up quite the tortured criticism of journalists the other day.

In a longer column lambasting the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho Freedom Foundation chief took reporters to task for actually talking to the teachers’ union.

“Writers cover the IEA as though its mission is to improve public education,” Hoffman wrote. “Accordingly, reporters often seek the organization’s thoughts on education, as though it has an impartial, scholarly viewpoint to offer.”

Hoo boy. This is one of those moments where the pot meets the kettle.

Say what you will about Wayne Hoffman’s opinions. Many of you do.

But I don’t think anyone has accused Hoffman of being an impartial and scholarly observer of Idaho public policy.

Hoffman’s scholarly “impartiality” on things education makes room for him to suggest that maybe the state shouldn’t fund a public school system — despite a state Constitution that mandates just such an expenditure.

“I don’t think government should be in the education business,” Hoffman wrote in February. “It is the most virulent form of socialism (and indoctrination thereto) in America today.”

Anyway, back to what Hoffman said recently.

In his latest column, Hoffman assails the IEA as a union concerned first and foremost with preserving its power and railing about deficiencies in K-12 funding.

There is nothing impartial or scholarly here. Nor is there anything inappropriate. It’s the head of one organization that lobbies at the Statehouse, criticizing a second organization that lobbies at the Statehouse. Seems like fair back-and-forth to me.

And since Idaho Education News published the original piece that got Hoffman all riled up — an article quoting Kari Overall, the former Boise teacher who now serves as the IEA’s president — it only makes sense to publish Hoffman’s rebuttal. Also fair game.

Idaho Education News takes plenty of flak for running Hoffman’s views on education. I took a good-natured bit of heat about it a few weeks back, at a speaking engagement — from none other than the guy who invited me to speak, former state superintendent Jerry Evans. (Full disclosure, also from my Statesman days: Evans worked with me on the editorial page, serving as our community representative for several months. I have nothing but respect for him.)

What I said then about running Hoffman’s columns, and what I’ll repeat here, is pretty simple.

Readers should have the chance to see what he has to say, decide whether or not to read his pieces, and draw their own conclusions. Hoffman is not an educator, and he doesn’t present himself as one, but Hoffman does have a significant voice in Idaho public policy. If you want proof, look no further than the debate over diversity and inclusion programs on college campuses — an issue the Freedom Foundation has been pushing for months.

There are a number of legislators who listen to the Freedom Foundation and adhere to the group’s stance on issues from taxes to Medicaid expansion. By the same token, a number of legislators align with the IEA on education topics. We’ll cover both groups, and other groups that shape education policy.

If we start limiting the voices in the debate to the impartial and scholarly among us, we’re going to exclude a lot of people and dismiss a lot of perspective.

Neither journalism nor public policy would be well served.

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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