Bogus Statistic from Wisconsin Union Backers Spreads Despite Repeated Debunking

“A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth has time to put its boots on” — like a false statistic recently spread by supporters of Wisconsin’s government-employee unions, such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Despite being debunked by PolitiFact, it has since been widely repeated in multiple letters to the editor, and it remains uncorrected on the web sites of publications like The Economist.

On Wednesday, PolitiFact debunked the claim by Wisconsin union supporters that Virginia, which bans collective bargaining in state agencies, ranks 44th in the nation in ACT/SAT scores, compared to Wisconsin ranking 2nd. For example, it noted that in 2009, Virginia ranked 22nd in ACT scores, while Wisconsin ranked 13th. As PolitiFact notes, this claim was originally disseminated by the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which has now retracted it.

(Although PolitiFact didn’t note this, in 2010, Virginia actually beat Wisconsin in ACT scores, with Virginia ranked 12th and Wisconsin ranked 17th. Unlike Wisconsin, Virginia is a right-to-work state that bars forcing employees to pay union dues. Collective bargaining with government employee unions is currently mandated in Wisconsin, but banned in Virginia.)

Journalists should have been immediately suspicious of this factoid, given that Virginia is a prosperous state whose schools have a good reputation. Virginia is one of the “top ten wealthiest states in America.” As the liberal Washington Post admitted in 2008, “Virginia public schools are among the top five state school systems in the nation, according to . . . one of the country’s most respected education organizations.”

The notion that Virginia ranks 44th is the sort of statistic that might be believed by very parochial journalists — perhaps they’re Manhattan-dwellers who never leave New York City and think most of America is uncivilized “flyover country” — but not, one would hope, the average journalist.

But The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog has cited this claim as being factual. Now that this false factoid has made its way to the web sites of “respectable” publications, we can expect to see it cited endlessly on MSNBC and liberal blogs and in letters to the editor.

State supreme courts are already heavily involved in state education funding, sometimes dictating increases in education spending to state legislatures, or finding their educational systems unconstitutional under vague provisions of the state constitution. If it gets cited in the print version of a newspaper (as it likely will soon), that newspaper article may in turn end up being cited in a future state supreme court ruling expanding the reach of government-employee collective bargaining, or overturning restrictions on such bargaining — cited, that is, as proof of the value of collective bargaining. False factoids frequently end up in state court rulings: UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh gives one example here, and Ronald K. Henry gives another in this law review article.

Here is the link to the PolitiFact debunking of the claim that Virginia ranks 44th in ACT/SAT scores:

Here is the link is my earlier Examiner commentary debunking the statistic at greater length:

Image credit: WxMom’s flickr photostream.