Fiorina’s Fast and Loose With the Facts

I noted at Lunch Buffet that the fact-checkers are having a ball with Carly Fiorina’s performance last night. But it’s worth remember that’s a real pattern with her. Back on August 20, WaMo intern Celeste Bott deconstructed a Fiorina appearance at Campbell Brown’s education summit in New Hampshire, and found the former CEO did not really know what she was talking about:

Many of her responses in the Q&A stuck to the same GOP talking points the other candidates mostly stuck to, criticizing the Common Core standards and an overinvolved Department of Education. Her biggest argument? Increased federal spending on education hasn’t led to substantive improvement.

“Let’s talk about what’s not working. It’s pretty obvious what’s not working. The Department of Education has gotten more money every year for roughly 30 years, and yet these income disparity gaps I described are getting worse. We’re not improving in terms of our achievement rates relevant to other nations. So we know factually speaking that when Washington spends more money, the quality of education in this nation does not improve.”

What Fiorina said, however, is factually inaccurate, even if it plays to common misperceptions about our “failing” public schools. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which education experts generally agree is the most reliable measure of K-12 attainment, reading scores for American nine year olds have increase by 12 points, or an entire grade level, and math scores have gone up 24 points, or two grade levels, since the early 1970s. And the disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged students she says have widened have in fact narrowed: black and Latino students’ test scores have risen faster than white scores. Though the topline NAEP scores are flat, making it seem like there has been little progress, as the conservative American Enterprise Institute has pointed out this is a statistical quirk arising from the fact that in recent decades the percentage of students who are affluent and white (and generally score relatively high) has decreased while the percentage who are lower-income and minority (and generally score relatively low) has increased. In fact, NAEP scores for all subgroups have increased substantially, during the same period that federal spending and involvement has grown.

That wasn’t the only problem with Fiorina’s education rap.

A great deal of Fiorina’s responses centered around promoting school choice, going so far as to say that if elected, she would surround herself with people who have built successful charter schools. When asked about challenges to choice, she pointed to federal programs like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top.

“Federal government money is being used to pick winners and losers. You see a program like Race to the Top being used to determine, ‘Well, you’re doing it the way we want you to do it, so you get federal money’ and ‘You’re not doing it the way we want you to do it, so you don’t get federal money.’ That’s not going to work. The truth is more federal money ought to flow out of Washington D.C. into the states, and money at the state level ought to flow into the community level.”

Race to the Top, a so-called barrier to school choice, awarded grants to states for lifting their caps on charter schools, effectively providing incentives for states to offer more choices and create innovative programs, the very things Fiorina is advocating.

Bott concludes by noting Fiorina’s assertion that the federal government should get out of education policy and instead focus on its primary responsibilities, like “repairing roads and bridges.”

Wrong again, Batman!

In fact, the vast majority of roads and bridges in America are owned and maintained by state and local governments, with the federal government picking up only 24 percent of all surface transportation costs, mostly for interstate highways and mass transit systems.

As we saw again last night, Fiorina relies on speed and specificity to give the impression of substantive knowledge, even if it’s not actually there. But what else would you expect from some fast-talking politician who’s been in office playing these games for years?

Oh, wait….

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.