Case Studies

How to Read an Opinion Column

Overview

Evaluating competing policy views on the subject of transportation in the Commonwealth focuses the quality of public discourse in this case study. Students read opinion columns from the state’s top policy makers to get a sense of the state’s partisan divide over transportation policy, and the extent to which vital public policy issues can be very difficult to resolve. Analyzing opinion columns demonstrates the utility of evidence for making one’s case and focuses on a key Virginia policy issue with which nearly every student will have significant personal experience.

Why I Taught These Sources

Few issues in Virginia politics generate as much heat among lawmakers as transportation. The struggle over how to deal with ever-worsening traffic can be found in many areas of the state: the choked highways and tunnels of Hampton Roads, the tractor-trailer clogged lanes of Interstate 81, and the commuter-generated parking lots of Interstate 66, Interstate 95 and the Washington Beltway.

The issue allows for many topics regarding the proper level of government service to the public. Should more money be raised to pay for transportation? If so, should it be directed to roads or to other transit options, like railways, buses, bicycle lanes, and the like? How should the state’s transportation resources be divided among north and south, urban and rural?

For me, transportation issues are about as exciting as government policy-making can get. Students often have first-hand experiences regarding the different quality of roads and traffic in different parts of the state. Many have often had experiences with mass transit at some points in their lives. Some have experienced the conditions of roads in other states and sometimes other countries. They can grasp the taxing tradeoffs involved: the dollar tax that can pay for public services, and the time tax that is paid when the roads are clogged and it takes extra time to go anywhere.

Thinking about these issues in the context of opinion columns can give students the means of evaluating the competing policy views from the perspectives of their own experiences and those of their fellow classmates. Unlike the ideological issues that sometimes dominate political discussions, reading transportation opinion columns from the state’s top policy makers can give students a sense of the policy basis of the state’s partisan divide, and the extent to which vital public policy issues can be very difficult to resolve.

How I Introduce These Sources

I introduce the students to the two opinion columns after providing students with an introduction to Virginia’s transportation situation. Key issues to explore with the class before embarking on this case study include asking students to grade the state’s handling of key matters relating to transportation. Do we have an “A” system of roads in our community? How would we determine what is an “A” system of roads? How do they compare to elsewhere? Given the experience nearly all students have as passengers and eventually as drivers, this is a topic that can generate a lot of discussion. I then repeat the process of asking for students to report grades for Virginia or Amtrak passenger railroads, airports, etc.

Depending on how much the students offer about their range of experiences across transit options and locales, I will often supplement the conversation with information about the different transit problems of different parts of the state, with particular focus on the Washington, D.C. suburbs, Hampton Roads, and the very dangerous tractor-trailer congestion found along Interstate 81. I provide comparisons about state levels of support for highway construction and maintenance. (Virginia has a relatively low gasoline tax compared to neighboring jurisdictions, and the growing fuel efficiency of vehicles means that this is both a relatively small and a declining source of revenue). Virginia also collects less in tolls per capita compared to many neighboring states, which can speed up traffic flow but can also limit the money the state can budget for transportation purposes. (Anyone who has driven I-95 through Delaware, for example, is hard pressed to imagine any highway anywhere where one has to pay more per mile to drive).

International comparisons are also useful for this discussion. Would high-speed trains, like those found in Europe, be worthwhile expenditures? If so, what cities should be on the routes, and which ones should not be? Why? Should spending on highways be cut in favor of mass transit?

In addition to the class discussion, I have students read Handout #1: “As Candidates Ponder Taxes and Traffic, Specifics of Road Proposals Remain Elusive” which is a Washington Post transportation news story on the 2009 governor’s race and gives students a basic understanding of the political debate.

Reading the Sources

After the students have read the Washington Post news story and we have talked about transit policy along the lines discussed above, I have the students read the opinion column by Governor Kaine, Handout #2: “Virginia's Unbuilt Road to Progress.” (I start with Kaine’s column because it was published first). I ask them to talk about the differences between the news story and the opinion column, and hopefully the students can sharpen their skills as news consumers through this exercise. I then ask them to outline the main points Kaine makes in his column. I then ask them how persuaded they are by these arguments. What doesn’t he talk about?

I then have them analyze the Howell opinion column, Handout #3: “Virginia Republicans Kept Their Promises on Transportation,” the same way: outline the main points, and determine how persuaded they are by these arguments. Again, students are asked to consider what this writer chooses to talk about and chooses NOT to talk about. Then, with columns under their belts, the students are asked to think about which writer seems most persuasive and why.

Reflections

Students who have been exposed to the heavily opinionated talk shows on cable and the posts of bloggers can be surprised by this different format for expressing one’s views. In the cold print of an article of this length, bluster can only get one so far: it’s the evidence that can make the difference between being persuasive or not in the opinion column format. Of course, one needs to stick to the main points: rarely do opinion columns run over 700 to 750 words, and these opinion pieces are each under 700 words. A close analysis reveals how each side pumps up its arguments and undermines the other party’s views. The utility of facts for public discourse are an important lesson as well. Each politician is at his most persuasive when the words move from partisan attacks to more substantive policy disagreements. This debate sheds light on the question of the gap between what people want from government and how much they are willing to pay to meet those demands.

One of my personal goals as a teacher is to focus on the quality of public discourse. In my view, too much hot air fills the cable shows and online policy discussions. (In fact, I find that many of my students discuss policy issues with the heat they have seen on cable). At a minimum, an analysis of intelligent opinion columns—even when penned with a measure of partisan venom—can demonstrate the utility of evidence for making the case. I also like this collection because it focuses on a key Virginia policy issue with which nearly every student will have significant personal experience.

With this background, students are prepared to research and write opinion columns of their own. Depending on the level of students involved, one might insist the topic be about some aspect of transportation. A teacher could provide research materials to make the assignment more manageable. Another option would be to give the students a topic or two to write about in their own columns on a range of state issues.