Facts Matter

"Fact? Do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts." George Banks, Mary Poppins.

When my daughter Sophie was two years old, one of her favorite words was "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which she learned from watching Mary Poppins every day for several months. The line that sticks in my mind, though came from George Banks, who while ranting told his wife, "Do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts."

That lines comes to mind most days when I read the editorial sections of the newspaper, as most pundits seem to have the same regard for facts that Mr. Banks did.

A few days ago, the Anchorage Daily News ran a front-page story on Alaska Christian College, a small school that's received some very large federal grants. An editorial followed a few days later and was later reprinted in the Juneau Empire).

Here's the gist of the editorial:

The Alaska Christian College is religious through and through. Just three
years old, it is the creation of the Evangelical Covenant Church of Alaska.
It was founded, the school's Web site says, to produce ministers who will
serve in rural Alaska. "For almost 20 years, no rural Alaskan (primarily
native) pastors have emerged in the Evangelical Covenant Church leadership
... there has been no Native/rural Alaskan colleges (sic) serving the needs
of students in Alaska who wish to pursue ministry."

Alaska Christian College is, the Web site says, "a Bible centered college"
where students will "study and apply God's Word" and "serve Christ." It is
a divinity school, pure and simple.

Pouring public money into starting such a school forces U.S. taxpayers to support the religious operations of one particular faith.

Alaska's congressional delegation might just as well have
put a $1 million check in the church collection plate.

There's a real danger when reading an organization's website is substituted for real reporting. There are a number of problems with the new story on the college as well; but this editorial takes it to another level.

Alaska Christian College (ACC) is not a divinity school, which generally understood to be a graduate school focused on religious studies. It's not even a seminary--a graduate school focused on training pastors. A visit to the school, an interview with a student or two would have made that perfectly clear. The students are high school graduates making the transition from village life to college.

The ADN editorial makes a significant factual error in this graph, one that if corrected undermines the paper's editorial (and news stance) on this story.

As the federal money pours in, Alaska Christian says it's branching out in
a secular direction. A new focus is helping Alaska Natives transition to
other colleges or universities.

Again, a bit of shoe leather reporting--interviews with students, the school's founders, supporters, etc, would have made all the difference. The college's primary intention is to help native Alaskan young people make the transition to college. The obstacles are enormous--only 10% of Native high school grad go to college, and of them, 90% drop out after one semester. That means 99% of Native young people do not make it through even one semester of college.

That's a problem that ACC addresses with a "holistic" solution, involving religious, educational, and counseling components. So far, it seems to be working, as 80% of their students complete their first year.

Should the federal government fund this religious approach? I don't know. It's certainly a lot more complicated than the Alaska Daily News believes it is.

This is a very small story about a very small college--nothing earth shattering like the recent Tsunami. But it's still important to get the story right.


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