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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactCheck Mailbag, Week of June 18-24

This week, readers sent us letters about international comparisons of education spending and Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s husband’s connection to the United States Postal Service.

In the FactCheck Mailbag, we feature some of the email we receive. Readers can send comments to editor@factcheck.org. Letters may be edited for length.


Comparing What Countries Spend on Education

This article published on your website today is headlined “Jeb Bush Gets ‘F’ on School Spending” [June 21]. Unfortunately, I think your characterization is an exaggeration and not likely to do as much as you might hope to “reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”

You state: “Jeb Bush has repeatedly — and falsely — claimed that the United States spends ‘more per student than any country in the world.’ Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland all spend more than the U.S. on elementary and secondary education.”

You base your assessment, in part, on the [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] report, “Education at a Glance 2012,” highlighting, in particular, the data shown in charts B1.1 and B1.2, on pages 218-219. Based on the data presented there, you are certainly correct in noting that Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland all spend more than the U.S. on primary and secondary education combined. However, although you point out that the U.S. spends more on tertiary education than any other nation, you do not mention that as a result, the U.S. also spends more than any other nation on primary, secondary and tertiary education combined. To me, this does not seem so very far away from what former Gov. Bush actually claimed.

I understand entirely that it would be reasonable, absent clarification, to interpret his remarks as relating to primary and secondary education. However, I think your claim that he “was clearly talking about elementary and secondary education, since his remarks were in the context of students not being ready for college” [emphasis mine] is far from decisive. Funds spent on tertiary education are completely relevant to what is spent on pre-tertiary education since both compete for limited resources. So, the fact that the U.S. spends more, overall, largely because of tertiary education funding, is a relevant observation in the context of students not being ready for college.

Do I know that this is what he had in mind? No, I have no idea. But that’s really not my point. My point is that: (i) you have chosen to frame the issue in one particular way when other interpretations are possible, (ii) even if your interpretation is completely correct, it hardly undermines the actual rhetorical point Bush was making, and (iii) considering (i) and (ii), your headline seems, frankly, a little theatrical.

The reality is that many statements people make about the state of the world, particularly in the context of political discourse, are necessarily abstractions. They attempt to capture some relevant truth without overwhelming us with non-essential data. It’s hardly surprising that in the process of distilling and filtering information, a variety of interpretations and conclusions are possible. “True” and “false” are not always the only ways of evaluating these statements.

In a case like this one, I don’t think that questioning someone’s competence or honesty, as your headline implicitly does, is a particularly useful way of shedding light on an issue.

Mark Thomson
Lake Zurich, Ill.



Sen. Feinstein, Her Husband and the Postal Service

Your answer regarding the involvement of [CB Richard Ellis Group Inc.] with the Postal Service, and Sen. Feinstein’s relationship to CBRE through her husband, was mostly correct [“Feinstein’s Husband & the Postal Service,” June 20].

Since the [U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General] just released a report on the performance of that contract, you might have done well to read and refer to that report, which details some problems with the management of the CBRE contract.

The statement by Ms. [Sue] Brennan about how the contract was awarded is true, to a degree, but CBRE was actually the only firm deemed qualified to bid and the only one considered.

Whether there is political influence within the Postal Service [Board of Governors] is a murkier question that probably was better left alone given the brevity and limited context to your answers to these questions.

There clearly is no prima-facie evidence that the senator exercised any influence in the awarding of the contract. As to how important or powerful Mr. [Richard] Blum is in the firm, your answer really can’t speak to that in any meaningful way — 5 percent of a major corporation is a major holding and Mr. Blum’s position on the board is significant.

As far as the senator’s votes on postal issues go, they could be interpreted in many ways in terms of how they impact the contract in question. CBRE receives commissions for leases it negotiates, so not closing post offices may, in fact, be in CBRE’s interest.

The original email was certainly over the top, and there is nothing to substantiate any direct wrongdoing or even untoward influence. Nevertheless, the issues here are more complex than your answer would seem to indicate.

FactCheck.org provides a valuable service, but often you seem to dispose of a claim that requires context and depth in a far too obligatory manner. Sometimes the correct answer may simply involve reviewing germane facts and not necessarily making a determination one way or the other. Things are rarely perfectly clear in the political realm.

Mark Jamison
Webster, N.C.