School funding – everybody is 49th

Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli the famous saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Public policy debates are chock full of statistical presentations, and frequently those statistics obscure and confuse as much as they illuminate.

And, sometimes, they just plain old lie.

You can see stats trotted out for whatever people need to prove in Olympia. So, spending more on x and y now will actually make z cost less in the long run. Every tax increase will have an economic multiplier effect – and so will every tax exemption. Hiking costs on businesses will actually make businesses grow – there’s a graph that proves it.

All of which is to say, when it comes to political advocates bearing stats and charts, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. A background in statistical analysis wouldn’t hurt either (any statisticians interested in running for the Legislature? I’ll make the first donation to your campaign).

All of this was brought to mind by an interesting aside in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. As author Vicki Alger pointed out, any state can be “49th in school funding” if the stats are parsed to reach that conclusion:Education 49th

But school funding in isolation is misleading. In the past year alone at least a dozen states have been ranked 49th in K-12 spending, depending on the source and its methodology. Among the states earning this distinction were Alabama, Arizona, California, Illinois, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas.

California’s 49th place ranking was cited in a 2014 UCLA Undergraduate Students Association resolution, based on per pupil spending adjusted for regional cost-of-living differences. Florida ranked 49th according to the National Education Association. And based on Wallet Hub rankings of per capita school spending, Tennessee deserved 49th place. Still other 2014 studies by the Missouri Public School Advocates and the Open Sky Policy Institute gave 49th to Missouri and Nebraska, respectively.

All the children in Lake Wobegon may be above average, but no doubt a study shows their school funding is next-to-last. A quick web search will confirm that any number of groups claim that their state’s school funding is 49th.

Alger notes, “What these identical rankings prove is that you can aggregate data and sift statistics to prove almost anything you want.” Keep that in mind next time a similar trope is trotted out in your local paper – or a legislative hearing room.
-Rob McKenna

The following two tabs change content below.
Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.