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Fact Check: Are Texas Schools Really So Bad, Under Perry?

By Michele McNeil — August 22, 2011 4 min read
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Arne Duncan went on the attack over the weekend, criticizing Gov. Rick Perry’s education record in Texas. And in return, folks are fighting back in defense of Texas—and not just Perry’s presidential campaign, either.

Depending on who you read, Duncan’s claims were “lies”, confusing, and false.

Here’s exactly what Duncan said on a Bloomberg TV show broadcast this weekend: “Far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college. I feel very, very badly for the children there. You have seen massive increases in class size. You’ve seen cutbacks in funding.” And later, on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program this weekend, he took the opportunity to reiterate his attacks, adding “low standards” and a “high dropout rate” to his list of Texas wrongs.

In an email to Duncan last week, Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott called Duncan’s claims a “misunderstanding” and “disappointing.” He wrote, “Your pity is misplaced and demeans the hard work that is taking place in schools across Texas.”

The Perry campaign defended the Republican governor’s record in a Bloomberg story, using a September 2009 article in Education Week, to explain how the Lone Star State is a national leader in adopting college- and career-ready standards. Although the Bloomberg story links to a completely unrelated State EdWatch blog item about Texas’ fight over federal education jobs money, it’s likely the campaign was referring to a story by Catherine Gewertz about how Texas was building an enviable system aligning high school and college, through standards, state laws, tests, and professional development.

So just how true, or false, are Duncan’s statements? With the help of my colleagues Kay Dorko and Amy Wickner, in the Education Week library, we’ll try to give you a little insight.

We found that Politifact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times that seeks to sort out truth from fiction, did a good job rounding up the data on Texas class sizes, and declared Duncan’s criticism that class sizes have grown massively is false.

As far as standards and college readiness, that’s a mixed bag. It is true that the ever-independent Texas is one of five states that have not joined the Common Core State Standards Initiative. But, various issues of Education Week ‘s Quality Counts include data from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center that show Texas faring OK on standards and other similar indicators. On the 2007 Quality Counts grading, Texas was ranked 11th among the states that aligned education from cradle to career, 16th on achievement indicators, and 9th among states for standards, assessment, and accountability indicators. In the 2009 edition, on standards, assessment, and accountability, Texas scored 88.1 and the U.S. average was 83.6. On K-12 achievement, Texas scored 72.6, compared with the U.S. average of 69.4.

The 2011 edition of Quality Counts, the most recent, offers a quick snapshot of the state of Texas education: Texas got an “A” on standards and accountability, a “B+" on assessments, and an “A” for all indicators on transitions and alignments (this includes college readiness and economy and workforce). The state’s other grades are lower: a “C-" on K-12 achievement, a “C” on the teaching profession, and a “D+" on finance (but this includes a “B” on equity).

Texas’ graduation rate has inched up slowly since Perry took office in 2000, from 64.9 percent to 66.7 in the 2007-08 school year, according to Education Week‘s 2011 Diplomas Count. The state has consistently been below the national average, however, which was 71.7 percent in the 2007-08 school year.

On funding, the National Education Association ranked Texas 37th in per-pupil funding, down from 25th a decade ago. Of course, you have to consider the source of any study, although in this local story in The Dallas Morning News, state officials don’t dispute it.

As for cuts in funding, most states have had to slice K-12 spending. In the latest fiscal report put out by the organizations that represent the governors and their state budget officers, 18 states made mid-year fiscal 2011 cuts to K-12. (These are the worst kind of cuts because they are often unexpected and harder to plan for.) Texas was not one of them. However, the state was one of 16 that recommended cutting K-12 for fiscal 2012. Indeed, the budget enacted over the summer carried some big cuts to education, leaving funding “woefully inadequate,” as one lawmaker described it. Included in those cuts was an almost zeroing-out of the nation’s largest merit-pay program for teachers.

The Politics K-12 bottom line: With questions about school funding and college- and career-readiness, things could be better in Texas schools. But with a stronger showing in standards and accountability, and class sizes that haven’t grown “massively,” kids in Texas aren’t nearly as bad off as Duncan claims.

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