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Opinion and fact 

A recent commentary on California's education system made arguments that don't necessarily have merit

I return several times a year to my hometown of San Luis Obispo, and it is always a pleasure to read New Times as a way to keep in touch with local developments. As a high school English teacher with 27 years of classroom experience, I was particularly interested to read the Aug. 13 issue on the Common Core and current trends in education—until I read Mr. Bargenquast’s opinion piece on education ("Rational education is the right education"), at which point I felt I had picked up an April Fool’s edition of the publication.

I would like to offer a professional analysis of the argument offered by Mr. Bargenquast. Succinctly stated, his opinion piece is a ramshackle assemblage of logical fallacies, with a heavy emphasis on overly broad generalizations and errors in causality and fact.

In short, it is balderdash.

Mr. Bargenquast makes few clear and specific claims, and when he does, his claims are wrong or misleading. Here is one example: Mr. Bargenquast claims that “California has fallen to 49th in the nation in academic achievement.”

This is simply wrong.

California is not 49th in any measure of academic achievement I can find anywhere, not even in the 2014 ALEC report card, which comes from a highly conservative organization that would have many reasons to list a “liberal” state like California at the bottom of achievement, but instead puts us at 27, not 49.

No, California is not 49th in educational achievement—California was instead ranked 49th in funding in a 2013 Education Week Quality Counts report.

Mr. Bargenquast is either making a simple mistake—which would be bad enough—or he intends to mislead by linking a factual number with a misstatement.

Keeping in mind that the annual Education Week Quality Counts report uses data with a three-year lag time, the most recent numbers from Ed Week show that California moved from 50th in funding for the 2014 report to 46th in funding for the 2015 report, so things are improving slightly, even before the recent funding changes Gov. Jerry Brown made have really kicked in.

Perhaps the real problem is that you get what you pay for: One reason we are also ranked at a D+ and 42nd overall by Education Week is, in fact, our relatively low funding.

Returning to the details of Mr. Bargenquast’s argument, he makes so many claims and pastes them together so sloppily that it’s hard to know where to start, but the common link between them is this: They are either false or so broad that they barely qualify as opinion. A quick sample makes my point clear. Mr. Bargenquast claims that we are beset by an “alarming rash” of teen pregnancies, but the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data show teen pregnancies at an all-time low—seriously, Google it.

He claims that we are beset by campus violence, but again the most recent CDC data shows a decline from 57 to 33 yearly deaths of staff nationally between 1992 and 2009, with student deaths declining from 34 to 17 over the same period. The CDC also shows declines in other problem areas, like vandalism.

We see downward trends in these problem areas when we look at data; in Mr. Bargenquast’s argument, we see exaggeration that appeals more to emotion than reason.

In another example of this, Mr. Bargenquast states that we have “millions” of youth being treated for a range of maladies, from depression and anxiety to drugs and alcohol, and he says that this is all a result of a permissive environment created by a grab bag of educational authorities who, he claims, turned away from traditional values. This has been supposedly aided and abetted by the liberal media.

Without even disputing how many teens are being treated for what, I search in vain for Mr. Bargenquast’s explanation of how all these problems are actually caused by our educational system and its supposed liberal permissiveness. Beyond a smattering of local Santa Maria data, without any context either against the data for the state as a whole or nationally, either per annum or in terms of trends, I find nothing.

Or to be more precise, I do find other very broad claims, pretending to support his earlier claims, but I find no evidence that can be believed. Am I seriously meant to think that attending public schools that have been corrupted by liberal education theorists, that are too permissive, and that are filled with illegal aliens has made the youth of America drug-addicted and depressed? If so, Mr. Bargenquast has not provided any evidence of it.

As for Mr. Bargenquast’s claim that charter schools, Christian schools, and Montessori schools (I’m not sure why he left out Waldorf schools) “almost all … outperform public schools at a fraction of the cost”: This is also not true, or more exactly, true in part but untrue in presentation.

Charters are in fact run with public funds, and while they generally spend less per pupil—mostly due to using teachers with limited experience, and paying them less than regular public school teachers—their costs and results vary widely. A study by Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers showed that many charters in Connecticut spent more than state public schools. And many charters, like many religious schools, do not serve special education or other special needs populations, and when they do, generally do not serve the most challenged students—who tend to cost more to serve and to lower test averages, making the public schools who serve these students seem comparatively less effective. (I emphasize that I believe that special needs students should be served as well as we can serve them. I am just dealing with the facts of Mr. Bargenquast’s argument here.)

It’s impossible to compare apples to apples when it comes to charter, private, and traditional public schools. But results for charters, after more than 20 years, are mixed. While a majority of inner-city charters in the most recent Stanford CREDO study show improved results, charters are a mixed bag, not a panacea.

I will rephrase my earlier conclusion about his argument: Rather than balderdash, his editorial was entirely humbug. There is a difference.

After receiving an excellent primary and secondary education in San Luis Obispo, Sean Brennan has been teaching high school English in Pleasanton for more than 25 years. Send comments to

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