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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Slanted ‘debate’ can still serve as civics lesson

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful educational experience if one of the local high schools allowed its students to manage a political debate? They’d research the issues, write questions and debate which ones to use. Some teachers would oversee the activities to ensure fair play. Candidates would be invited to participate, and the community would be invited to attend.

Ferris High School’s Leadership Class advertised such an event in October, featuring mayoral candidates Mary Verner and David Condon and school board candidates Deana Brower and Sally Fullmer. But it turned out to be a forum where a partisan teacher and like-minded adults used schoolchildren and school property to further an agenda.

Contributors with ties to the Republican Party were invited to conduct “research.” One of them, Mike Noder, was a losing candidate in the mayoral primary. Some slanted questions were written (the complete list of school board questions is attached to this editorial online). And, finally, students were allowed to pick questions from that partisan pile.

Checking facts? Didn’t happen. Ensuring balance? Didn’t happen.

Attendees at this debate had every reason to believe this was a student-run event, because it was billed as such. They were left with the impression that students wrote the questions. Here is one of them:

“Recently, teachers in Tacoma went on strike, defying state law and a judge’s order to return to work. Documents now show it was part of a larger plan by the teachers union. Did the WEA want to send a painful message to parents and lawmakers? Do you see the same thing happening in Spokane? And if so, what would be your reaction?”

Here is another:

“Deana Brower, you have called for more state taxpayer money for schools. Yet Spokane Catholic schools pay significantly less than the $11-$12,000 per student that District 81 spends, and with better measurable results. Is more money really the problem, or is there another issue?”

If baked potatoes were this loaded, you’d never finish one.

The students in the Leadership Class are not to blame. They spearhead many worthwhile events, such as the Coats 4 Kids drive and other charitable events. It’s their teacher, Jennifer Walther, who needs to rethink her role.

This controversy comes on the heels of a Spokane Public Schools newsletter that carried a teachers union ad listing fall election endorsements. This is a newsletter schoolchildren take home to their parents. The district published an apology in the next edition, and the Spokane Education Association acknowledged it was inappropriate.

The district is now looking into the debate controversy. Regardless of how this turns out, the political playgrounds need to be shut down. Taxpayers do not finance public schools so employees can use them for political influence.

However, an opportunity still exists for students to expand their research, writing and critical thinking skills, increase their political knowledge and stage a valuable civic event.

It could be a wonderful educational experience.