A Funny Thing Happened to our Data on the Way to Philadelphia

Mark Price |

If you have been following this gubernatorial election, or just watching television, you might have noticed that the Wolf campaign has been arguing that 27,000 jobs were lost in education in Pennsylvania.  That’s a figure my colleagues and I released in late August in our annual State of Working Pennsylvania.  To generate that number we used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate education employment in local governments in the 2010-11 school year, which ran from July 2010 to June 2011. In that school year, there were 308,000 workers employed in the education sector.  In the 2013-14 school year, which ran from July 2013 to June 2014, there were just over 280,900 workers employed in the education sector. Take the difference and round down, and you get 27,000 fewer people employed in that sector today than in 2010-11.

During the gubernatorial debate last Wednesday morning, Gov. Corbett claimed that 14,000 job losses in education occurred during the previous administration.  According to Dave Davies at WHYY, the Corbett campaign cites as the source for that claim a story by Melissa Daniels in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

In early August, Daniels called me, asking questions about job loss in local governments. I shared the monthly data since 2003 that I summarized above and explained that the bulk of losses in the education sector (just over 15,000 jobs, see Table 1 below) occurred between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.  I noted that I prefer to use an annual estimate of employment in education tied to the actual school year as well as the state budget cycle, given the importance of state revenues to local education.

Daniels thanked me for the data and ran a story with the lede that education employment in September 2013 was at its lowest level since September of 2003.  Daniels reported that “Pennsylvania lost 11,200 teachers and staff during Corbett’s term, according to state data.”

Daniels defined job losses during the Corbett administration as the change in education employment between September 2011 and September 2013 (see Table 2 below). Corbett took office in January 2011, and his first budget, which impacted school district budgets for the 2011-12 school year, was signed in June 2011. In other words, employment in September of 2011 reflected the budget choices of the Corbett administration in its first state budget. But by Daniels’s construction, the lower level of employment in September 2011 was thanks to state budget choices by the Rendell administration made in 2010, which is clearly mistaken.  The Daniels article even says: “Corbett’s first budget coincided with the expiration of the stimulus and a 4.19 percent decrease in education employment, the largest decrease during his term.”  That 4.19% decrease is the percent change in education employment from September 2010 to September 2011, which is 12,700 (see Table 2 below). But by reporting job loss under the Corbett administration as the change from September 2011 to September 2013, or 11,200, she implied that the 14,500 job losses that occurred between September 2009 and September 2011 were under the Rendell administration.

Shortly after the article appeared, Stephen Miskin, press secretary to the PA House majority leader and spokesman for the House Republican Caucus, used Daniels’s article to taunt the Pennsylvania Education Association on Twitter:

Then last week,  during the gubernatorial debate, Tom Corbett went one step farther, citing the number in Daniels’ article and claiming 14,000 jobs had been lost under the Rendell administration. If you correct Daniels’s error there were 1,800 education job losses under Ed Rendell and 23,900 education job losses under Tom Corbett.

When Daniels’s story first ran back in August, I followed up with her to explain that her construction of the data was mistaken. She thanked me for my feedback and promised to call me if she ever returned to the subject.  I also submitted a letter-to-the-editor pointing out her mistake, but the paper never published it.

There is, I think, a silver lining here.  This year’s gubernatorial race has proved definitively that there is a strong desire not to be associated with the cuts in school programs, rising property taxes and loss of thousands of jobs in education that have occurred in the last four years thanks to a cuts-only approach to resolving recession-induced state budget shortfalls.  I think we can expect future governors, regardless of party, to use a more balanced approach to resolving the budget shortfalls that always emerge when recessions reduce tax revenues.