Faulty data from the Virginia Department of Education gives state public schools a black eye

A recent study cited faulty state data on the number of teaching positions and non-instructional staff in Virginia.
A recent study cited faulty state data on the number of teaching positions and non-instructional staff in Virginia.

For the second time in 13 months, people are getting a bad impression of Virginia public schools because of faulty data compiled by the Virginia Department of Education.

The latest incident came to our attention through an email that Virginia’s Family Foundation sent out last month criticizing state legislators for raising taxes this winter while ignoring "ridiculous" waste in schools.

Victoria Cobb, president of the socially conservative group, wrote: "According to a Friedman Foundation study, Virginia is one of 21 states that currently have more non-teaching staff than teachers. But it gets worse. We’re not just one of 21, we are #1. Virginia school districts currently employ over 60,000 more non-teaching personnel than teachers."

We looked into these figures and learned that they are wrong. But we decided not to make a Truth-O-Meter rating on this claim because the Family Foundation’s statement was based on incorrect data that the state education department sent to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the principal federal agency for analyzing data on schools.

Last year, erroneous reporting by the department to NCES led officials at the Virginia Education Association and a few Democratic legislators to inaccurately claim that the ratio of students to teachers grew by 50 percent during the last decade.

Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the education department, said the state is working with NCES to correct the information. He also said the department is reviewing its procedures for preparing data for the federal agency.

The Family Foundation based its claim on numbers in a national study of school staffing released in February by the Friedman Foundation for School Choice, a conservative organization founded by the late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winning economist.  The Friedman Foundation, in turn, got its data from a 2010 NCES report.

That report says in fall 2008, Virginia public schools had 71,415 public school teachers and a non-instructional staff of 132,152. So teachers were outnumbered by non-instructional staff by 60,737. That figure put Virginia by far the No. 1 state with the greatest number of non-instructional workers compared to teachers.

In comparison, Ohio ranked No. 2. Its non-instructional staff outnumbered teachers by 19,040.

Pyle said the U.S. requires states to sort its public education staffing through a complicated formula that considers each employee’s position each period of a school day.  "The daily assignments of many teachers, including special education teachers, do not fit neatly in any NCES reporting category," he said.

As a result, 19,989 teachers in 2008 were "misreported as other support personnel," Pyle said.

On top of that, Pyle said the department double counted "thousands of administrators and other non-teachers."

The department has been making similar mistakes since the start of the 2005 school year that indicate teachers make up only about 35 percent of Virginia’s public school employees.

The department has sent corrected figures to the federal government that show teachers made up 49.4 percent on school payroll in fall 2008. Non-instructional employees outnumbered teachers by 2,032. That would have dropped Virginia to 14th among the 20 states where teachers comprised a minority of public school employees.