Phony Numbers

September 1, 2009

A chronic problem with centralized accountability systems is that they require accurate information from the agent that is being held accountable.  But because people don’t like to squeeze vises on their own hands, they are often tempted to slip out of the vise by fudging the numbers.  And because the centralized authority is often reluctant to squeeze the vise anyway, preferring the happy story that schools are reforming but never reformed, obvious fudging of the numbers is tolerated.

I’ve documented this problem when it comes to graduation rates, which have often been misreported to avoid political embarrassment and accountability sanctions. 

Now David Muhlhausen, Don Soifer, and Dan Lips over at Heritage (with help from Jonetta Rose Barras at the Washington Examiner) have uncovered a new type of phony numbers — school crime and safety information. 

The Heritage report used Freedom of Information requests to the D.C. police to find reports of violence and criminal activity at DC schools.  The prevalence of violence and criminal activity is shocking and helps explain why students may be so eager to get vouchers for private schools or switch to charter schools.

But if you look at the officially reported numbers that D.C. schools report to the U.S. Department of Education in the “Indicators of School Crime and Safety,” as they are required to do by our centralized accountability law, you’d get a completely different (and almost certainly misleading) picture.

According to the Heritage report based on FOI requests of police records, there were 860 violent incidents at D.C. public schools during the 2007-08 school year, including 1 murder, 41 sex offenses, and 608 assaults.  But according to the office that submits the official D.C. crime and safety information to the U.S. Dept of Ed, there were only 40 violent crimes during that same period.  What happened to the other 820 that were reported to the police?

The difference between the crime and safety numbers reported for accountability purposes and those discovered through FOI requests to the police is huge.  They differ by a factor of 20!

I have to confess that stories like this shake my confidence in our ability to improve public schools through centralized accountability systems.

CORRECTION — I wrote “vice” when I meant “vise.”  That’s a great Freudian slip.