Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Texas school districts combined are about the size of U.S. Postal Service

Public schools and education are frequent topics of statements put to the PolitiFact Texas Truth-O-Meter. Source: Austin American-Statesman
Public schools and education are frequent topics of statements put to the PolitiFact Texas Truth-O-Meter. Source: Austin American-Statesman

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, floated a dramatic point in a recent Texas Tribune article, saying that together Texas school districts are the fifth-largest employers in the world.

Combined, the districts employed 661,285 people in 2009-10. That was less than the number of workers for Wal-Mart and two Chinese entities and just behind the the U.S. Postal Service, which had 667,605 employees.

But Patrick’s claim rates Barely True, we concluded. His numbers are solid -- but his logic struck us as skewed. After all, each district operates independently, with its own budget, board of directors and employees from top to bottom. In our reporting, we speculated that a more accurate comparison might be made to workers in an industry: employees of fast-food companies, say, or day-care workers or law enforcement officers.

His was the latest in a busload of education claims to face the Texas Truth-O-Meter.

Similarly, Gov. Rick Perry told lawmakers in his State of the State address last month that state education funding was 82 percent greater in 2009 than it was a decade earlier. Yup, but that year-to-year snapshot obscures the fact that the share of educational expenses picked up by the state surged and receded over the decade. The state picked up 46 percent of school districts’ spending in 1998-99; that share was less than 43 percent in 2008-09. We rated his statement Half True.

Pitching for lawmakers to support more educational spending, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said at a January press conference that Texas ranks 44th nationally in school spending per pupil. We learned that Texas was actually 37th in 2009-10, improving from 44th the year before. By other measures for recent years, Texas has placed as low as 43rd and, rolling in capital costs, as high as 36th. The senator’s statement proved Mostly True.

Beyond Austin’s pink dome, Walker, Texas Ranger--we mean actor Chuck Norris--wrote in a column: "Some of our state's educational administrators joined the feds in seeking to mandate Arabic classes for Texas children."

We identified two Texas school districts tapping federal grants to offer Arabic as a language, but found no evidence any student was going to be required to take Arabic classes. Nor did we find proof that federal and school district officials are teaming to impose that mandate on students in general.

However, one district initially planned to sprinkle Arabic-related topics through its curriculum. We rated the claim Barely  True.   

Educational claims have also been tested in every Truth-O-Meter’d state.

Recently, for instance, PolitiFact Wisconsin looked into a claim by labor union supporters that Wisconsin test scores vastly outpace those in five states without collective bargaining for teachers.

False. The statement, in a Facebook post, was based on outdated data based on a questionable methodology. And a review using current data showed that Wisconsin students do perform better on test scores than their counterparts in non-union states, but not as dramatically as suggested. That’s at best limited evidence that unionization played a causal role in shaping differences in test scores.

With education funding a hot topic both locally and in the 2011 legislative session, we’re counting on more school-focused claims. This week, for instance, Perry told reporters there’s been "rather extraordinary" growth in the non-classroom share of the state’s school workforce. Surely that's checkable.