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Moving the School Choice Debate Forward
with Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

    Moving the School Choice Debate Forward with Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor
    by George Clowes

    George A. Clowes is Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute

    September 16, 2005


    One of the major difficulties in advancing the concept of school choice is educating the public about the idea: What it means, why it's needed, what kinds of school choice there are, and how it would benefit the various stakeholders in public education, not the least of which are parents and taxpayers.

    One cost-effective means of educating the public is through those features of the news media that are accessible to the public -- i.e., letters to the editor, op-ed articles, commentaries on the radio and on TV, and call-in talk shows. Letters to the editor in particular are widely read and noted, not only by the general public but by elected officials and opinion leaders. Newspaper op-eds are sometimes provocative enough to prompt subsequent panel discussions on TV or radio, and coverage by radio talk shows.

    What is suggested here is not the establishment of an organized letter-writing or op-ed submission campaign but a call for individual supporters of school choice to look out for and take advantage of opportunities to bring their own individual perspective -- or their organization's perspective -- about the benefits of school choice to the attention of the public through letters to the editor and through occasional op-eds.

    Although each newspaper and media outlet has its own individual guidelines for submission -- which writers should always observe -- what follows are some general guidelines for submitting letters to the editor and op-ed articles.

    Letters to the editor

    Letters to the editor should consist of a short commentary on a single issue, making your point clearly and logically in an engaging style. The shorter the letter and the more concise the argument, the less likely you will be edited for length. Check the newspaper letter columns for a few days to get an idea of the average letter length and use that length as a guide. It will generally be between 100 and 200 words. Although the Daily Herald, for example, permits letters of up to 300 words, aim to make your point in 200 words or less -- if you can do it in 125 words or less. all the better. Never exceed the newspaper's stated word limit for letters to the editor.

    Most newspapers also have some limit -- usually about one a month -- on how frequently they will publish letters from the same writer.

    Don't send form letters or "open" letters.

    Always include your name, your mailing address, plus daytime and evening phone numbers. If the letter is considered for publication, newspaper staff will call to verify the writer did indeed send the letter before forwarding it further.

    Title your letter: "Letter to the Editor: [Topic Addressed]"

    In your letter, always mention "school choice" and one or more of its advantages for parents, for children, and for taxpayers.

    Write the opening of your letter like a newspaper article and end it like an op-ed. In other words, state the basic message of the letter in the first paragraph and end it with a short, strong restatement of that message. The body of your letter should cite the issue you are taking up, followed by a statement of your position on the issue and why you advocate that position, citing supporting facts and figures whenever possible.

    Don't forget who your audience is -- parents, concerned taxpayers, community leaders, and lawmakers.

    Stay on point. Don't try to cover every angle or argument.

    Focus on the issue, not on individuals. However strongly you may feel, don't make personal attacks -- keep it civil!

    After you write your letter, proofread it for typos and grammatical errors.

    Some suggestions:

    It is a good idea to link your letter to the newspaper by referring to a previously published news article, op-ed, editorial, or letter to the editor. Make that reference in your opening sentence. For example:

    • I was disappointed that The Daily Journal's September 6 article, "State Funding Shortfall Puts More Schools in Red," failed to point out that may of the districts cited get only a tiny fraction of their funding from the state and so cannot blame the state for any financial problems they may be experiencing....
    • I strongly disagree with your June 27 editorial, "Schools Need State Support," where you argued more state tax dollars were required if we wanted to see an improvement in public school performance...
    • I was surprised to see [writer's name] so opposed to school choice ["Title of Op-Ed," date] when choice is so widespread in the existing public school system -- at least for some parents...
    • Your correspondent [write's name] is misinformed about school vouchers ["Title of Letter," date]: rather than harming public schools, they help public schools improve...

    Letters can also refer to pending legislation, and commemorate anniversaries:

    • I strongly support the expansion of school choice offered in House Bill 9999, which is up for a final vote next week...
    • This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Pierce decision, a key U.S. Supreme Court ruling on parental rights in education...
    • Four years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional for parents to take their education tax dollars and spend them at a school of their choosing -- public or private, secular or religious...

    Finally, don't forget to praise well-written news articles about school choice or favorable editorials. Positive reinforcement is effective. For example:

    • I strongly agree with The Daily Journal's October 15 editorial, "Let Parents Choose," which advocates a statewide voucher program so that all parents could direct their education tax dollars to the school that is best for their child...

    Op-Eds

    The guidelines for writing Op-Eds are very similar to those for writing Letters to the Editor, except that you now have 500 to 800 words to work with instead of about 200.

    Op-eds should consist of an engaging commentary with a strong point of view on one major current issue, with a "hook" to link it initially to another major current news item or concern, and with the writer's points presented clearly and logically. As a general rule, don't try to make more than about one point per 200 words of op-ed length. Check the newspaper op-eds for a few days to get an idea of the average op-ed length. It will generally be between 500 and 1,000 words. However, use 600-800 words as a target length and try not to exceed 800 words, since op-ed space is limited and the longer your article, the more likely it is to be cut.

    Always include your name, your mailing address, plus daytime and evening phone numbers. If the op-ed is considered for publication, newspaper staff will call to verify the writer did indeed send the article before forwarding it further.

    Title your article: "Op-Ed: [Topic Addressed]." If you can come up with a short, catchy headline for your op-ed, include that, too.

    Write the opening of your op-ed like a news article but don't end it like one, as a fade-out. In other words, state the basic message or recommendation of your op-ed in the first paragraph and end it with a strong, memorable restatement that makes it clear you have concluded your op-ed. The body of your op-ed should cite the issue you are taking up, followed by an exposition of the points you want to make about the issue, citing supporting facts and figures whenever possible. But don't just cite data -- try to tell a story.

    Don't forget who your audience is -- parents, concerned taxpayers, community leaders, and lawmakers.

    Stick to your issue and the points you want to make. Don't try to cover every angle, argument, or objection.

    After you write your op-ed proofread it for typos and grammatical errors.

    What are editors looking for in op-eds? According to the Communications Consortium Media Center, "Editors want the opinion pages to stimulate community discussion and drive public debate. They want people to say 'Wow! Did you see that op-ed today?' Failing that, they want to elicit a 'Hmmm,' a reaction of surprise at something amazing, interesting or outrageous."

    The Consortium suggests editors look for the following in op-ed submissions:

    • A provocative idea on any subject.
    • An opinion on a current issue that is controversial, unexpected, authoritative and/or news.
    • Timeliness is key.
    • A call to arms on a neglected subject.
    • Bite and wit on a current issue.
    • An author with name recognition.

    "With the above criteria in mind," notes the Consortium, "you should pay attention to current events and look for an angle that is provocative and new. The op-ed pages rarely run announcements of events, status reports or the blatant promotion of organizations or obscure causes. Most editors see this as a section for sharp opinion, advocacy, denunciations, controversy, and astonishment."

    Contact Info:

    Chicago Tribune

    • Op-Eds: Manuscripts may be submitted to the op-ed page by fax: 312/222-2598, or e-mail: [email protected].
    • Letters: include phone numbers, address, Submit by e-mail: [email protected], fax: 312/222-2598, mail to Voice of the People, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL, 60611 or online at www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion.

    Chicago Sun-Times

    • Op-Eds: 650 word limit. Topic must relate to an issue currently in the news and be exclusive to the Chicago area. Please include full name, address and telephone number. Send plain-text e-mail to [email protected] or fax submissions: 312/321-2120 .
    • Letters: Send to [email protected], and include full name, phone number and address.

    Daily Herald

    • Op-Eds: Usually only syndicated columnists are published.
    • Letters: Send to [email protected]. Limit: 300 words. Letters must be signed and include the writer's town, and day and evening phone numbers. Mailing address is Fence Post, The Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006-0280.

    Useful Web Sites

    Other helpful tips may be found at the following three web sites:

    1. Guidelines For Communicating With The Media
      Institute for Legislative Action (ILA), the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association of America.
      http://www.nraila.org/ActionCenter/GrassRootsActivism.aspx?ID=12 As well as providing guidelines for writing letters to the editor and op-eds, this web page also provides information on how to communicate with broadcast media and calling in to radio and TV talk shows.

    2. Media Tips and Training: A guide to placing op-eds and letters to the editor
      Communications Consortium Media Center
      http://www.ccmc.org/oped.htm This web page addresses mainly op-ed submissions but provides links and guidelines for both op-eds and letters to the editor for the nation's top 100 newspapers.

    3. Guidelines for Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor
      Pomona College Office of Communications
      http://www.pomona.edu/communications/media/opedguidelines.shtml This web page addresses mainly op-ed submissions and focuses on the nation's top 21 newspapers and magazines. Links are provided to the publications.




    George A. Clowes
    Senior Fellow
    The Heartland Institute

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