It’s been strangely quiet in the Claim Check cubicle lately, but not because candidates and PACs have suddenly abandoned political advertising.
Instead, Connecticut candidates took a break from specific boasts or specific accusations to focus on generic vote-for-me-I’m-a-nice-guy ads that defy fact-checking. So, for example, we saw congressional candidate Mark Greenberg’s clever analogy about barking dogs and we know that gubernatorial longshot Joe Visconti packs heat and rides horses. But neither of those spots had measurable claims that could be addressed in this space.
But at last, a recent Tom Foley TV spot, focusing on education, makes a single checkable assertion about the performance of Connecticut schools. The claim is based on an outdated report and the issue of school performance is more complicated than can be squeezed into a short ad. But overall, Foley’s assertion is justifiable.
“Is there anything more important than a child’s education?” the Republican gubernatorial nominee asks rhetorically at the beginning of the ad.
“Over 100,000 Connecticut children are in underperforming schools,” he continues, and in doing so wades into a long-running debate over how to measure whether schools are delivering.
That 100,000 figure has its genesis in the complex rules imposed on public schools under the No Child Left Behind law. That law set ambitious long-term test-score goals that all schools were expected to reach, along with a requirement that schools make “adequate yearly progress” toward the target. Any school that failed to meet its yearly progress requirement two years in a row was deemed to be “in need of improvement.”
During the 2010-2011 school year, 135 schools in Connecticut had been deemed “in need of improvement” for five or more years. And the Connecticut Council for Education Reform ran the numbers and noted in an April 2012 report that more than 100,000 students attended those 135 schools.
The Foley campaign says that report is the basis of the ad’s claim, and the report’s numbers check out. But the ad does take some liberty in describing those schools as “underperforming.” That’s a loaded word, and under No Child Left Behind, there was plenty of controversy over the designation “in need of improvement,” which was applied to some schools with test scores that were above average and rising – just not rising fast enough. Nevertheless, by at least one standard, those were schools that were not meeting expectations and it’s not unreasonable for Foley to declare them “underperforming.”
But those figures are from tests given four school years ago. And since then, the state obtained a waiver from certain No Child Left Behind requirements and developed a new school-performance methodology. So how many students are currently in underperforming schools? With the new methodology — as with the old one — that’s not a straightforward question, with no such neat classification.
The state’s new process puts schools in one of six performance categories, with somewhat ambiguous names: “Excelling,” “Progressing,” “Transitioning,” “Review,” “Focus” and “Turnaround.”
In the state’s most-recent school-performance report, issued last November, there were 184 schools in the bottom three categories, serving just over 100,000 of the state’s roughly 550,000 students. There’s a complex formula for assigning schools to a category, and it would be a judgment call to declare that all schools in the bottom three categories are “underperforming.” But it wouldn’t be unfair for a political candidate to make that judgment.
The Foley campaign did not rely on the most recent data in analyzing schools, but a look at fresher numbers shows that the Foley’s reference to 100,000 students remains defensible. As such, we rate this ad Generally Accurate.