Tom Eblen

Sound, fury, ‘school choice.’ Beyond social media frenzy, a serious public policy issue.

Dozens of teens criticized over treatment of Native American veteran at Lincoln Memorial

Covington-Catholic students were criticized over the treatment a Native American elder received when he tried to walk through the group. Nick Sandmann said he -- and his classmates -- were not mocking the man or blocking his path.
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Covington-Catholic students were criticized over the treatment a Native American elder received when he tried to walk through the group. Nick Sandmann said he -- and his classmates -- were not mocking the man or blocking his path.

The weekend confrontation on the National Mall in Washington was a perfect made-for-social media controversy. And by the time it all played out, there was enough blame to go around for just about everybody.

There were the Covington Catholic High School boys in their Trump and “Make America Great Again” caps, and the adults who were supposed to be chaperoning them. There were the racist Black Hebrew Israelites who taunted and provoked the boys. There was the drum-beating Native American elder, whose role in in the whole thing still seems unclear.

And making everything worse were the politicians, pundits and thousands of Facebook and Twitter users. Everyone saw what they wanted to see in videos of the incident and expressed opinions based mostly on their own ideology. President Donald Trump even chimed in on Twitter, echoing the Fox News talk show he was watching.

It was a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing except that we all spend too much time on social media and are too quick to make harsh judgments based on limited information.

But before we move on to the next social media soap opera, let’s pause to consider an important public policy issue lurking just below the surface: Should the school these boys represent be subsidized with your tax dollars?

Kentucky does not now offer vouchers, tax credits or other direct financial support to religious or other private schools. But “school choice” advocates want to change that. Gov. Matt Bevin has declared this week Kentucky School Choice Week. A big rally featuring several Republican politicians is planned Thursday at the Capitol in Frankfort.

National School Choice Week organizers say this is a nonpolitical effort to give parents “choice” in how education tax dollars are spent on their children. But critics see it as a right-wing attempt to shift resources from public to private schools and funnel tax money into the pockets of corporations, churches and homeschoolers.

Conservatives have long been critical of public schools. Some don’t like their children exposed to ideas that differ from their own. Others don’t like science that challenges their economic interests (think fossil fuels and climate change) or religious beliefs (think Northern Kentucky’s Creation Museum and Noah’s Ark theme park.)

Families have every right to send their children to private schools, but they shouldn’t expect a public subsidy. I’m one taxpayer who is uncomfortable with some of the lessons Covington Catholic seems to be teaching.

Those students may not have been at fault as much as indicated in the first viral video — the one that prompted their school and Covington’s mayor to apologize for their behavior. But they are hardly blameless, as Trump and their congressman, Republican Thomas Massie, would now like people to think.

When I saw the first video, this was what I wondered: Why was a school sending teenaged boys to Washington to participate in an anti-abortion march? Then I wondered why the boys’ chaperones allowed them to get into a confrontation with a Native American there for another march. (The black hate group’s role hadn’t been revealed yet in another video. And neither had the statement of the smiling (or smirking) boy in the first video, written by a Louisville public relations firm.)

I also wondered why so many of the boys were wearing MAGA caps and other Trump paraphernalia. Was this encouraged or merely tolerated by their chaperones? Do they not understand that many people view those caps as a provocative symbol of this president’s racism and anti-immigrant policies, which have been criticized by Pope Francis?

Since last year, the Kentucky General Assembly has considered back-door voucher schemes that would funnel public money to private schools and give high-income donors generous tax breaks. So far, these proposals haven’t become law. But watch out: “school choice” advocates will keep trying. And if you think private and religious schools will be willing to curb their political activism in return for tax dollars, think again.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.

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