Factchecking the Factcheckers
Among the most diabolical innovations of late-twentieth century newspapering was the so-called “factcheck.” The flagship of these projects, Politifact, goes to war against falsehood under a simple banner: “Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.”
Factchecking pretends that reporters are godlike – objective, neutral, free of bias. That’s a fact that needs checking. But no one can be truly impartial. Human motivation is complicated, shot through with biases. About the best we can hope for, finally, is to acknowledge our own prejudices publicly and humbly before we decide to pronounce verdicts.
So here’s my bias: Almost every utterance of teachers union leaders is pure propaganda – fact-free, slanted, dishonest, false, deceptive, political, the precisely opposite of what’s actually true.
As biases go, this one has proved such a reliable starting point in my reporting for so long that it’s unlikely I’ll be able to abandon it now.
Let’s test my bias by applying it to the once-esteemed Associated Press and its recent “factcheck” of a statement by the Florida GOP – and the connection of that “factcheck” to education in California.
Our story begins with this early September claim from the Florida Republican Party: “When Governor DeSantis took office,” the party tweeted, “Florida ranked 26th in the nation for teacher pay. Today we are 9th. Every year he fights to ensure Florida teachers get the support and funding they need.”
A few days later, on September 16, AP reporter Ali Swenson donned a surgeon’s scrubs and gloves to examine that claim. She determined that the Florida GOP’s claim was “false.”
Swenson arrived at this conclusion after examining “national salary data” which, Swenson says, “contradicts [the party’s] numbers.” But Swenson admits her numbers come from “the National Center for Education Statistics” which, along with several other online sources, “get their salary information from the NEA, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, which compiles most of its data from state education departments.”
Quoting Staci Maiers, an NEA spokesperson, Swenson says the NEA data shows that Florida “ranked 48th in the 2020-2021 school year, giving teachers an average of $51,009. The state is estimated to continue to rank 48th for the 2021-2022 school year.”
Ranking 48th is a far cry from ranking 9th. But the data is worse for Florida: the same NEA report shows that California teachers earned a whopping $84,531, making them No. 2 in the nation, just behind New York.
Now, asking the NEA what it thinks of Florida teacher salaries is a little like asking Vladimir Putin what he thinks of Ukraine.
In fact, the NEA report on which the AP’s Swenson relies is so mathematically and logically flawed that it makes you wonder if the union’s leaders do what they do because they can’t find employment in the private sector. It’s possible they could get jobs as reporters at the Associated Press. And with the NEA as the self-declared representative of the nation’s teachers, it’s no wonder our kids can’t read, write or reason.
Rating teacher pay is, in fact, a bit more complicated than the AP suggests – certainly more difficult than asking a propaganda unit of the teachers union what it thinks.
First, you’d examine cost of living. In that case, you’d find Florida teacher salaries go much farther than California teacher salaries – a feature missing entirely from the AP’s “factcheck.” The overall cost of living in Florida is 43 percent less than in California. In the key category of housing, Florida is a remarkable 72 percent less expensive than California. This is largely a function of government regulation and taxes.
And speaking of taxes, if you raise the salaries of teachers and other government employees, you raise taxes for everybody. There’s no free lunch: If you pay teachers more, somebody will pay the tab – generally people who can’t afford to hire an amazing CPA.
Teacher union leaders may respond that they will tax only the rich – owners of buildings or businesses, for instance. But those people will, in turn, simply pass along the tax hike to their customers – including teachers and the families of kids they teach.
Nor does the NEA report note that California teacher pay does not include the cost of benefits like pensions and retiree healthcare – costs that account for some of the state’s record $1.6 trillion in debt. Principle and interest payments on benefits increasingly limit what local governments and districts can spend for basic government services – services like education.
Because people don’t like to pay California taxes, some of them leave our state – moving to low-tax, reasonably regulated places like Florida. That phenomenon is so common that it has a name: The California exodus. Californians are fleeing the state in such numbers that, for the first time in over a century, California actually lost a congressional seat.
And if you’re truly as concerned about teacher pay as the AP’s Swenson, you shouldn’t ignore the fact that teachers unions themselves could immediately give teachers a raise by eliminating collectively bargained teacher-pay contract items.
In California, for instance, teacher pay is linked to the number of years a teacher has paid dues to its union local. In other words, pay is linked to time in the union, not effectiveness and not the relative scarcity of their teaching discipline (AP physics or chem, for example vs. Pre-K teaching). Want to pay teachers more? Start by paying them according to talent.
Unions could also immediately end dues payments for their members. In California, that would give each teacher a $1,000 net increase in annual gross pay. (If you’re a teacher or you know one, let California Policy Center help them stop paying union dues.)
Teacher unions could also end the practice of defending bad teachers through the costly and political grievance process. In California, terminating a bad teacher costs a district an average of $250,000. Rather than burn that cash, most districts simply choose to burn students instead, moving bad teachers into poor communities where parents are already so burdened that fighting their kids’ schools isn’t – can’t be – a priority. Poor people suffer most where teacher unions are strongest. (If you’re a parent fighting your school, start with California Policy Center’s Parent Union.)
We could go on, but you get the picture.
The AP never explains why it took it upon itself to check the Florida GOP’s tweet, never explains why this particular utterance – among the billions of things that billions of people say every day on this vast planet – is uniquely deserving of an AP reporter’s attention. I have a bias that explains this too, one that suggests the AP’s story selection and NEA sourcing has something to do with the fact that AP is actually a partisan organization. Far above its concern for “truth,” the AP is most concerned with advancing progressive causes (such as teachers unions) and undermining the reputation of conservatives (such as Republicans and Florida Gov. DeSantis). If I’m right, the AP figures that a hatchet job carried out against DeSantis today may help bleed some of his support – and not just in his current reelection campaign: It might also provide comfort to those who fear DeSantis as the greatest threat to Democrats in the 2024 presidential campaign.
You don’t have to love Ron DeSantis or hate Democrats to find this kind of “reporting” outrageous. But if you care about the actual impact of government unions on education, outrage is likely what you’re feeling about now. This week, EdSource reported that California’s teacher union-run schools are failing at a speed that threatens California’s economy, safety and viability.
In “Student math scores touch off ‘five-alarm fire’ in California,” reporter John Fensterwald concludes, “Math scores of California’s average eighth graders on standardized tests in 2021 were in line with the knowledge and skills of fifth graders, according to a new analysis of the state’s Smarter Balanced tests.”
“The results highlight massive gaps in math learning that existed long before the [Covid] pandemic,” Rick Miller, CEO of the CORE Districts, a multidistrict data and improvement collaborative, told Fensterwald. “Responding with a one-time fix misunderstands what is happening.”
The true ranking of teacher salaries ought to include this consideration: what did taxpayers get for their money? By most measures (here and here, for example), Florida ranks near the middle of the states. California ranks dead last.