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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Response to WASDA study sad, stupid spin

by folkbum

It's been, oh what's the word for it, interesting to read responses to the WASD survey out a week ago. Almost all the criticism of the survey--and, recall, this is a survey of quantifiable, confirmable data, not whether people's feelings are hurt--flows directly from the official Walker campaign memo Governor's office press release (pdf) last week.

That response, if I may paraphrase, was mostly Well, the whole sky didn't fall down so #winning! (My pop culture jokes may not be timely, but at least they're trite.)

No, seriously. Here's one direct quote from the Walker response: "67% of districts for grades 4-6 are keeping the same class size or decreasing." So, yes, a lot of districts were able to stave off disaster in this area but, you know, a full third didn't. And they're all like that.

The most prevalent of the criticisms is this: "Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Janesville school districts account for 67% of teacher layoffs for the entire state." This line of "leave out Milwaukee" was evident in the critique by Esenberg ("hatchet job" is his headline) for example, who typed out that "a huge percentage of reduction in force came in Milwaukee. The DPI uses this to maximize the extent of the cuts when it chooses to present statistics on the number of students who attend a district in which something has happened."

The implication being that if those three districts were removed from the data, everything would look grand. So let's do that--remove those three from the data. What do we get?

In the original survey, including Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Janesville, the percentage of districts eliminating teachers was 64%. Of 349 non-Milwaukee, Kenosha, or Janseville districts responding to the survey, 224 reported cutting teacher positions for this school year, or .... drum roll .... 64%. Here it is in a picture:

The black Xes are the districts you can safely ignore because they so obviously screw up the data so much, what with no other parts of the state being red, apparently, according to the WASDA critics.

And including MPS, Kenosha, and Janesville in the stats do not significantly skew the data, contra Esenberg. Let's do a bit of a thought experiment and imagine that these districts had fully applied the lash Walker's "tools." Since 59% of districts in the survey with no binding contracts laid off teachers, odds are good that these districts would have still cut teaching positions. Indeed, if MPS had gotten concessions from teachers--as I argued the union should have acceded to--more than 400 teaching positions would still have been cut, though half of them through attrition rather than layoff.

(An additional bit of math: If you assume that all the remaining 73 districts that didn't respond to the survey were not under contract, and assume that they all bucked the trend and did not lay off teachers, you still have 44% of out-of-contract districts statewide laying off teachers. But that's based on two unsupported and unlikely assumptions, meaning the real percentage is likely higher. Note: I used Erin Richards's "about two-thirds" estimate for how many Wisconsin districts were not under contract.)

But perhaps the most pernicious of the critiques of the WASDA survey is this: The survey, the story goes, shows that the "reforms" are working.

How do they claim that? One made a graph, because apparently when school districts follow the law that forces them to reduce their levy, it's visualizable news.

It's usually wrapped in the guise of "we didn't have mass layoffs and still balanced the budget!" The afore-mentioned Esenberg shoveled that here, for example, and it's in pretty much every other response. But this requires you to believe that 7,700 fewer state and local workers (pdf) is not "mass layoffs."

It also requires you to believe the budget is balanced. Or, as Esenberg writes at that link, "For the first time in years, Wisconsin has a budget that wasn't balanced by borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and through smoke-and-mirrors accounting." Which would be true if it weren't false: "In fact, the document shows that based on GAAP accounting, the state would have been left with a deficit of $3 billion by 2012-13 under Walker's budget. That compares to the $2.9 billion GAAP deficit he inherited at the end of Doyle's term, the state's financial statements show."

In the end, the spin and lies are just disheartening. I mean, your taxpayer dollars could have paid an art teacher. Instead, they paid for this sentence from the Governor's office about the WASDA study: "According to the results of the survey released last week, the school districts that responded and utilized the reforms put in place earlier this year mostly either stayed the same or were able to improve the educational opportunities available to their students." In order for this to be true, "mostly" would have to be redefined to about 40%, two out of five, less than half. Because the 59% of school districts that responded and utilized the "reforms" still made cuts.

To sum up: The best responses are absurd or patently false. Your modern WisGOP, everybody. Absurd, patently false.

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