George W. Bush famously accused opponent Al Gore, during one of their campaign 2000 debates, of using “fuzzy math” to burnish his “too-good-to-be-true” tax plan.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and some of his appointees may have been watching, but instead of seeing fuzzy math as a danger, it looks like they took it as a challenge.
Two of the biggest victories touted by Team Emanuel are increases in graduation rates at City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, but recent disclosures raise questions about those numbers.
Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported that City Colleges aggressively embraces the awarding of diplomas to former students who earned enough credits to get a sheepskin but transferred, dropped out or died before receiving one.
In the past two years, 1,413 retroactive diplomas were issued, compared with only 626 in the previous four years.
City Colleges claims retroactivity is being utilized across the country to give credit where credit is due, but considering that most of those credits were earned years ago, it seems disingenuous to count those diplomas in 2014 or 2015.
Bottom line: Of the 1,874 more degrees and certificates awarded by City Colleges in 2014 than in 2013, 653 were retroactive.
City Colleges points out that most, if not all, of the retroactive diplomas are excluded from graduation rate calculations, which are based on narrow federal guidelines.
So they confidently claim the overall graduation rate has doubled from 7 to 14 percent in recent years.
But the big jump is based on the awarding of degrees to only 777 graduates last year, less than one percent of the 119,000 students who take at least one course.
That’s worth bragging about?
Graduation rates at Chicago Public Schools are also suspect. A BGA/WBEZ investigation found thousands of students mislabeled as transfers when they should have been counted as dropouts. After the report, CPS officials revised the graduation rates down a few percentage points.
Schools CEO Forrest Claypool says the district made a statistical error, but it looks more like human error — pressure on principals to ensure their graduations rates look good.
Fuzzy math also applies to the budgets of CPS and City Colleges: Emanuel and his appointed leaders toss out big numbers that don’t hold up under close scrutiny.
CPS claims to have trimmed the administrative bureaucracy by nearly a billion dollars to prevent classroom cuts. But our budget analysis indicates non-classroom spending hasn’t gone down, and Claypool’s administrators have ignored our repeated requests to substantiate their savings claims.
As for City Colleges, the BGA reported last week that its bureaucracy has grown in the past five years, even as enrollment drops and tuition goes up.
City Colleges admits growth in the central office, but claims savings in “back office” functions “freed up $66 million for academic uses.”
But our analysis indicates spending in the colleges is only up by $10 million, or 4 percent, so the $66 million figure is a mystery.
Education’s not the only place where the Emanuel administration’s been accused of fudging the numbers.
Crime stats have also been challenged by, among others, Chicago Magazine.
The problem with fuzzy math is that real people are behind the numbers — people who deserve a city government that confronts reality head-on, not by cooking the books and declaring pyrrhic victories.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: @andyshawbga