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January 23, 2016

Yesterday I fell in with the chorus and praised Governor Charlie Baker’s State of the Commonwealth Address. I failed to write about how the governor chose to speak about issues he chose to highlight and which stories he chose to ignore.

I realized my shortcoming by reading a wise comment to my original State of the Commonwealth post:

Kathy is right, he didn’t speak to the pain of public school parents. That is because political speech always chooses to emphasize some parts of a story and ignore others altogether. It is meant to tell a persuasive story, as Deborah Stone writes in Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. He did speak movingly of parents, especially minority parents, in pain because the unavailability of charters dooms their children to a desiccated education and lost opportunity. Political pictures are also meant to tell a story and minority mothers play a big role there too, as in this photo from a Boston Globe story on September 15, 2015 about charters:

The African-American moms are a symbol that this issue is about equality and opportunity, values that are supposed to appeal to Democrats, liberals, moderates – just about anyone who thinks the state needs to enhance opportunities for hard working, decent but disadvantaged families.

So where’d the cool T-shirts and signs come from? Hmmmmm…… Well this part didn’t make it into the governor’s State of the Commonwealth speech or into his rally remarks, but the money to pay for the goodies that helps to make the carefully staged picture comes from wealthy business interests. The campaign is in full swing – according to a January 11, 2016 Globe story, pro-charter school forces recently sent mail into the districts of some legislators, including that of Senate President Stan Rosenberg. “A business-backed coalition is poised to spend up to $18 million and obliterate state campaign spending records in favor of expanded charter schools.”

The business group in Massachusetts is called Great Schools Massachusetts, and apparently the mailings were paid for by “Families for Excellent Schools, a Manhattan-based nonprofit with deep ties to Wall Street.”

The point is that every political story, including those told by charter school opponents, is told to persuade and enhance the political end the teller wishes to achieve. The story I hope gets covered is where all this money is coming from and what benefits the donors expect.

I also commended Governor Baker for his empathetic understanding of the moms. I stick by that – policy learning can be enhanced when political leaders get out of the State House and learn what their constituents really need. Here’s what else I missed though: as Jonathon Haidt writes in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we humans pick a position and then construct morally appealing reasons for holding it. “[T]hink about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas – to justify our own actions…. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value.”

In other words, Baker would like to increase charter schools and recognizes that unequal opportunity suffered by minority parents is a good story to help him get his way. Unless some humans ain’t human (a possibility John Prine allows for) then we all do what the governor is doing.

But I lost sight of that, so thanks to Kathy for getting me back on track.

State of the Commonwealth, Charlie Baker

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