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PSN on March 20, 2006 - 12:10pm
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) recently issued its 2006 version of its "Report Card on American Education", the organization's annual propaganda that public schools are failing and that more resources for poorer schools won't make a difference.
It's hard to believe that anyone takes these ALEC "Report Cards" seriously, since they are a statistically silly but headline-grabbing gimmick written by Andrew T. LeFevre, a writer with little educational training whose previous work was as a flack for the Association of Private Correctional and Treatment Organizations (APCTO), the private prison industry's lobbying arm. The "Report Cards" compare student success averaged across each state as a whole -- with no breakdown for wealthier versus poorer communities or any account of special education needs that might vary between the states. LeFevre's career is as a political hit man for corporate privatization of public institutions, not in educational statistics, and it shows in the simplistic statistical analysis used in the ALEC "report cards."
While there are obviously individual schools in need of more help, serious education studies have shown real improvement overall in the public schools over the last few decades. For example, the Nation's Report Card, issued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a branch of the federal government, shows performance gains for most age groups from 1971 to 2004, with the gap between white and minority students closing over the last three decades.
Conservative flacks like LeFevre downplay these gains as insufficient for the money spent, quoting a statistic that "per pupil expenditures have increased by 78.0 percent" in the last few decades. But this number exaggerates spending increases by ignoring inflation in service sector costs and the fact that a substantial portion of increased spending has been for special education and dropout prevention. The increased special education spending was crucial for expanding the percentage of the school-age population attending public schools -- and saving taxpayers money due to lowered institutionalization costs for the physically and mentally disabled. But it's just a dishonest statistical trick by rightwingers to count such special ed money as an increase in spending for the general school population.
And here's the core statistical lie of the public school privatization crowd -- they overstate the funding going to schools, especially to those in poorer communities, then argue that no more funding is needed for the schools that do need help. Yet the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has highlighted a range of studies showing that increased investments in public education produce substantial benefits in student achievement, particularly among low-income students:
Because low-income students lag in academic achievement, and many poor school districts continue to receive funding levels below those of wealthier districts, high-poverty school districts represent both the greatest need for education funding and the greatest opportunity to improve student outcomes.
Nowhere in the ALEC report are educational spending differences within states discussed, a glaring omission given that there are lawsuits and political campaigns challenging unequal funding of schools in nearly every state in the country.
But distracting the political debate from such problems is exactly the point of statistical frauds like ALEC's report.