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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sunday Replay

On this week’s Sunday talk shows, we caught the education secretary making a greatly inflated claim about high-school dropouts. Plus, Florida lawmakers made exaggerated statements on tax cuts and support of environmental bills.

Too Cool for School

On ABC’s "This Week," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan greatly exaggerated the number of students leaving school every year:

Duncan: In this country, we have a 25 percent dropout rate. That’s 1.2 million students leaving our schools for the streets every single year.

That’s so far off the real dropout rate that we asked the Department of Education what Duncan might have been referring to, but the department hasn’t yet responded.

The actual status high school dropout rate — that is, the percentage of individuals between ages 16 and 24 who are not in school but have not completed a high school degree or equivalency — was 8 percent in 2008, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The event dropout rate, which is really the measure of how many students are "leaving our schools for the streets every year," was even lower; in 2007, 3.5 percent of enrolled students in the 10th through 12th grades left school. That’s 383,000 individuals dropping out of high school in a year.

Duncan may have been looking at the high school graduation rate, which was 73.2 percent in the 2005-2006 school year. Subtracting that from 100 percent does give an implied non-graduation rate of 26.8 percent. But it also gives an inaccurate picture of the country’s educational situation. The high school graduation rate compares the number of students graduating in a given year to the number of students newly enrolling in high school four years previously. It doesn’t account for equivalency degrees or students who take more than four years to finish, and it certainly doesn’t indicate the number of students "leaving our schools for the streets." We’ve written about this error before, when Obama made a similarly inflated claim. 

Update, Aug. 30: The Department of Education confirmed that Duncan was referring to the four-year graduation rate. He erroneously calculated a dropout rate from that figure.

No Job, No Tax Cut

On CBS’ "Face the Nation," Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz — a member of the House Democratic leadership — misspoke when discussing the percentage of Americans who received a tax cut under the Obama administration. She said: “We gave 95 percent of Americans a tax cut.” That’s not true.

We addressed this during the 2008 presidential campaign, when Obama first proposed his tax cut plan – which was implemented as the "Making Work Pay Tax Credit" in the stimulus package that became law in February 2009. Obama said that his plan would cut taxes for 95 percent of American workers – the key word being “workers.” And that’s true. During the campaign, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center conducted an analysis that showed 95 percent of American workers would receive a tax cut under Obama’s plan. But the plan would result in a tax cut for 81.3 percent of all American households, the Tax Policy Center found. Wasserman Schultz needed only to add the word "workers" to make her statement correct.

Environmental Boasting

Also on "Face the Nation," Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek of Florida slightly exaggerated his support for environmental legislation.

Meek, who won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, said: "I’m the only person that stood up to oil companies in this race before and after the BP spill with a hundred percent environmental record." That’s true, but only for one year, and Meek has been a member of Congress since January 2003. The League of Conservation Voters, which issues environmental scorecards, gave Meek a 100 percent rating in 2009, but he earned slightly lower marks in previous congressional sessions: 88 percent in 2007-08, and 90 percent in both 2005-06 and 2003-04.