Framing his case for slimming school district staffs, GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick aired what the Texas Tribune called a "staggering" statistic--that the state’s school districts are the fifth largest employers in the world.
We paused too at Patrick’s statement, as paraphrased in a Feb. 25 Tribune news article.
Patrick’s chief of staff, Logan Spence, told us by e-mail that Patrick’s assessment tracks with a Jan. 18, 2011, press release from the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute, a conservative Austin-based think tank. The release says the Texas public school system is "the fifth-largest employer in the world with 646,815 employees. It is behind Wal-Mart Stores Inc., China National Petroleum, State Grid Corp. of China and the United States Postal Service." Its referenced study says: "If the Texas public education system were a private company, it would be the fifth largest in the world by employee count."
The study says it bases its school employee count on the Texas Education Agency’s 2008-09 pocket guide to school statistics and traces its 2008 counts for the world’s largest corporate employers to a July 2009 Fortune magazine look at the world’s largest private employers--all which we confirmed before obtaining more recent numbers from the magazine and the TEA.
And for national perspective, we looked at state-by-state public school employee counts for 2008-09 posted by the National Center for Education Statistics. That year, according to the center, Texas had 660,000 public school employees with California having the second-most, nearly 598,000.
TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe passed along the state’s 2009-10 count of full-time district employees, 661,285; she said the agency doesn’t have comparisons to private employers.
In July 2010, Fortune magazine issued its latest breakdown of the world’s most profitable 500 companies. Wal-Mart was No. 1 among them in employees as of that date, with 2.1 million workers, followed by China National Petroleum, at more than 1.6 million workers, State Grid Corp., China’s primary power grid builder and operator, at 1.5 million, and the U.S. Postal Service, 667,605. The fifth-largest company was Sinopec, a Chinese refining and gas company, with 633,000 workers. China National Petroleum refers to itself as a "state oil company" and State Grid says on its website that it’s government owned. Fortune says on its methodology summary that entities qualify for consideration if they must publish financial data and report their figures to a government agency.
So Texas school districts together had more employees last year than all but four of the world’s for-profit enterprises.
Fair comparison? Ratcliffe suggested otherwise, noting that every school district operates independently. A more valid approach, she said, would be to compare school employees with airline employees, or workers in some other industry. We thought of similar analogies: employees of fast-food companies, say, or day-care workers or law enforcement officers.
Next, we ran Patrick’s statement by education experts and advocates.
Peggy Johnson, associate dean for teacher education at Texas Tech University’s College of Education, said school districts aren’t as monolithic as corporations. "Wal-Mart is Wal-Mart, but in Texas you’ve got very independent school districts," Johnson said, "so it’s not the same as everybody being employed by the same company."
Catherine Clark, associate executive director for the Texas Association of School Boards, said in an e-mail that while it’s a "little unusual to aggregate over 1,000 separately governed working units and compare them with Wal-Mart or an international energy company," it’s not surprising the Texas public education system employs so many people. The enterprise is "large, far-flung and diverse," she said. "Its success depends on people--teachers, administrators, and support staff who provide an appropriate education program and safe facilities for nearly 5 million students."
Ken Zornes of the 22-year-old Texas Business Education Coalition, which describes itself as the voice of the state’s business community for educational gains, said: "You can walk into almost any business and find some ways to be more efficient. I’m sure that’s true with all the employees in the (Texas) education system."
When we followed up with Patrick, he called his statement fair. "It’s a perfectly legitimate comparison," he said. "The point is made: Our schools employ lots of people."
Yep, and the math behind his statement looks solid. Still, we find it questionable whether any workforces in the public sector, where the goal is supposed to be public service, are directly comparable to those in private sector, where the goal is to make money. We rate Patrick’s statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.