Contrary to reports, Virginia's student-to-teacher ratios are stable

State Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is among several people who have cited the errant figures.
State Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, is among several people who have cited the errant figures.

The Virginia Department of Education wants to correct some numbers that indicated an alarming growth in student-to-teacher ratios in Virginia’s public schools.

The statistics showed that Virginia had the second lowest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation in the 2005-06 school years, and dropped to 42nd in 2009-10.

The figures have been cited several times by those urging more money for public schools, including Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, during a Feb. 29 news conference; Virginia Education Association President Kitty Boitnott in a Feb. 24 blog; and the Commonwealth Institute in its September 2011 report, "Getting Virginia Back to Work: A Blueprint for Prosperity."  

PolitiFact looked into the numbers and concluded that those who have used them should not be subjected to our Truth-O-Meter. They were relying on data that had been incorrectly reported to the federal government by the state education department, according to Charles Pyle, a department spokesman.

Favola and other based their claims on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics showing Virginia’s student-teacher ratio ranked third among states in the 2005-06 school year and sank to 42nd in 2009-10. The center reported the number of Virginia students per teacher was 11.7 in 2005-06, 15.3 in 2006-07, 17.1 in 2007-08, 17.3 in 2008-09 and 17.6 in 2009-10.

Pyle told PolitiFact Virginia that the data, collected by the state, was coded incorrectly. State employees do not create the ratio themselves; they report data and the national center creates a ratio.

"This is a lot more complicated than taking student enrollment figures and counting the number of teachers," he said. "It has to do with how individuals employed by school divisions spend their time and the way we were reporting the data perhaps resulted in counting a teacher as several teachers based on how many courses she taught."

Pyle said student-teacher ratios have remained stable. As proof, he referred to data in the state Superintendent’s Annual Report which shows for five straight school years, starting in 2005-06, the state averaged either 11.9 or 12 students for every teacher.

The superintendent’s report has a lower ratio than the federal report because Virginia’s definition for teachers includes other instructional staff, such as librarians and guidance counselors. That definition has remained the same for decades.

For the 2005-06 school year, the state reported it had 103,944 teachers to the NCES. After that, Pyle said, the state started solving the problem of double-counting and dropped more than 20,000 teachers, so the total for the federal report was 79,688 in 2006-07. And the number fell dramatically again in 2007-08  to 71,861.

"From everything we know, it would not be true to say that our student-teacher ratio has shot up from 11.7 to 17.58 since 05-06 school year," Pyle said. "We believe the actual student-teacher ratio would’ve been somewhere around 17:1."

A 17:1 ratio in 2005-06 would have tied Virginia for 40th with Colorado. The 2009-10 ratio of 17.58 students per teacher, the latest figure available, puts Virginia 42nd in the nation.

Now that the education department is aware of the inflated number of teachers reported, it has asked the center to revise the figures.