Careful: Watch that spin cycle

Published 11:43 pm Friday, January 16, 2015


The word “spin” has several meanings. Grandpa thinks it is what you do when you test drive a new car. Grandma says it’s what the washing machine does. And the soccer mom does it when she goes to the health club.

But political types know it is the practice of greatly embellishing a political message. Political “spinners” rarely let truth get in the way of their message.

You know like at the end of a debate between two presidential candidates. As soon as the candidates leave the stage, the TV cameras focus on talking heads who declare their candidate blew the other one away because of their knowledge, quick responses and because their upper lip didn’t sweat.

A classic example of “spin” was recently on display in Alabama when a blog headlined a story saying, Alabama Survey Shows Widespread Support of School Choice, Disdain for AEA. The article referred to a political poll by a Washington-based firm, McLaughlin & Associates. You could clink a link to see the poll.

Which is when one quickly realized the blog, the article, the poll, and those who commissioned it were in full spin mode. They were not trying to give the public unfettered facts; instead, they set out to advance their agenda and figured the poll might give it credibility.

I’ve seen a lot of political polls. I’ve used them to develop campaign strategy, written questions to be asked and hired good pollsters. The way a question is worded and asked is very important. You do not want to lead respondents to a hoped-for answer—unless that is your intention to begin with.

Which is all this poll was intended to do.

The first clue as to what was going on was in the first sentence of the article that said the poll was released by the Alabama Federation for Children and the Black Alliance for Education Options. AFC is a newly-formed group in Alabama that spent $350,000 in state elections this year—all of it coming from millionaires in Arkansas, Michigan and California. BAEO was created more than 20 years ago by Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee school superintendent and an unabashed advocate of vouchers.

So having these two organizations crank out information that supports “school choice” is hardly a surprise.

To do this, you “cook” your questions. For instance, you mention the Alabama Accountability Act and say, “this program allows for low income families to apply for scholarships to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. The scholarships are funded by private donations from businesses and individuals in exchange for a tax credit.” However, you forget to explain that every dollar contributed to a scholarship is covered by a dollar taken from the public school education trust fund. So scholarships are in reality funded by public schools.

And since no one working to discredit our public schools can pass up an opportunity to inject AEA into the conversation, you ask respondents to agree or disagree with the statement, “The Alabama Education Association, also known as the AEA, should stop spending tens of millions of dollars a year on political campaigns and activities and instead use that money to help Alabama’s students by hiring more teachers and giving good teachers pay raises.”

Are you kidding me? AEA is an association. They do not run local school systems. They do not hire teachers. AFC and BAEO should explain to their Washington pollster how things operate down here.

But then, why let the facts get in the way of good propaganda? Like the statement in the article that says, “The AEA spent roughly $20 million on Alabama legislative races during the 2014 cycle.”

Anyone can go on the Alabama Secretary of State website and get info about political expenditures. I looked at every AEA report from the summer of 2013 through the November 2014 general election. Those reports don’t show anything close to $20 million being spent. Of course, it takes a little work to get the right numbers; and why do that when you can pull something out of thin air.

Which apparently is something McLaughlin & Associates know about. One of the major political stories of 2014 was the defeat of Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Kantor in the June primary. Since he was House Majority Leader he was considered unbeatable.

His pollster? McLaughlin & Associates. After polling on May 27 and 28, they said he had a 34 point lead over his opponent. He lost the June 10 election by 10 points.

Which simply means, don’t necessarily believe what someone in Washington says folks in Alabama are thinking.

Larry Lee led the study, Lessons Learned from Rural Schools, and is a long-time advocate for public education and frequently writes about education issues.