May 4, 2015

“To clarify, add data.”
― Edward R. Tufte

I keep promising myself I won't ever watch Bill Maher's "Real Time" again -- but I keep getting sucked in. This time, I had to watch Dan "Mr. Campbell Brown" Senor (the man who told us so many lies about Iraq) spreading misleading lies about the amount of money spent per pupil in Baltimore schools.

There is no single argument that is more likely to give me an aneurysm.

Back when I was a newspaper editor, I assigned a reporter to do a "tale of two school districts" story. She came back with a fairy tale. "Well, you see, the poor district spends as much per pupil as the wealthy one, so they must be squandering the money. They even have the same amount of books in their school libraries!"

I looked at her. Dear sweet Jesus, but reporters are lazy. "What is the average age of the books in their library?" I asked. She looked at me: "I... don't know." I told her to go back to the district and find out. Instead, she went to the managing editor and said I was being mean to her. She never wrote the story. (But she did end up getting a PR job with the wealthy district, which was more appropriate.)

Here's the thing: You never, ever get an accurate view of school district funding by dividing the budget total by the number of pupils. Republicans have been using this trick for a long time, and it's a lie. You know why?

Because poor districts get a lot of federal funds that are for specific remedial services and things like school lunches. (In a city like Baltimore, almost everyone qualifies for school lunches.) You have to subtract all those dedicated funding streams from the budget before you can get an idea of actual expenditure per pupil -- and even then, there are other variables.

After the Census Bureau reported that Baltimore was the second-highest per pupil expenditure, the Baltimore Sun clarified:

The [Census Bureau] per-pupil expenditures were calculated based on taking the districts' current spending on day-to-day operations and deducting payments to charter schools and capital funding. The remaining money was divided by the number of students enrolled in traditional schools. The amounts were not adjusted for inflation.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said the city's total could have reflected large infusions of cash to the district, including millions in federal stimulus dollars and federal Race to the Top funds.

He also credited state lawmakers for maintaining funding.

"As many states pulled back on spending, with many districts losing funding, Maryland held the line on education, which is why you see three districts at or near the top," he said.

On Monday, the school board passed a $1.2 billion budget that includes per-pupil funding of $5,190. That amount is different from what the Census Bureau reported because the school system takes out other expenses, such as transportation costs and special-education services, before allocating money to individual schools. In addition, the school system provides extra funding for certain groups of students, such as those in special education and dropout-prevention programs.

But Mr. Campbell Brown probably knows this, he and his charter-cheering wife. This is the Republican talking point of the week: "Baltimore gets All That Money, and it still hasn't worked!"

Like David Brooks did (via Ed Kilgore), writing last week about Freddie Gray's lack of moral fiber:

Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded. As Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post has pointed out, in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person. If you simply took that money and handed it to the poor, a family of four would have a household income roughly twice the poverty rate.

Yet over the last 30 years the poverty rate has scarcely changed.

Economist Dean Baker really let him have it:

If NYT columnists were expected to be accurate when they talked about government programs, Brooks would have been forced to tell readers that around 40 percent of these payments are Medicaid payments that go directly to doctors and other health care providers. We pay twice as much per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries, with little to show in the way of outcomes. We can think of these high health care costs as a generous payment to the poor, but what this actually means is that every time David Brooks’ cardiologist neighbor raises his fees, David Brooks will complain about how we are being too generous to the poor.

The other point that an honest columnist would be forced to make is that the vast majority of these payments do not go to people who are below the poverty line and therefore don’t count in the denominator for his “poor person” calculation. The cutoff for Medicaid is well above the poverty level in most states. The same is true for food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and most of the other programs that make up Brooks’ $14,000 per person figure. In other words, he has taken the spending that goes to a much larger population and divided it by the number of people who are classified as poor.

If Brooks actually wants to tell readers what we spend on poor people, it’s not hard to find the data. The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person. If low income people are working, they can get around $5,000 a year from the EITC for a single person with two children at the poverty level. (They would get less at lower income levels.)

These programs account for the vast majority of federal government payments to poor people. It won’t get you anywhere near David Brooks’ $14,000 per person per year, but why spoil a good story with facts?

There are many ways to play with data. Now that everyone's seen Baltimore burning on our teevee screens, expect to see them all on display.

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