"Imagine if your entire future was determined by what you did in the third grade," says Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in a television advertisement promoting his plan to expand preschool. "Did you know we use the failure rates of third-graders to help predict how many prison spots Virginia will need in 15 years?"
You didn't know? Could be because it's not true -- at least not in Virginia.
Hey, he was on a roll!
Here is the amazing thing. Not only is it not true, it's not even arguably true. It is demonstrably and unambiguously false.
"It's catchy," said Peter E. Leone, director of the National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice at the University of Maryland, often cited as the source of the link. "And it's totally bogus."
Leone has not ruled out the possibility that a state uses elementary test scores this way, but he has not found one.
"It's like an urban legend," Leone said, adding that he has been fielding calls for years from reporters and politicians researching similar assertions.
In Virginia, at least, it is definitely untrue. Barry R. Green, director of Virginia's Juvenile Justice Department, said that when officials draw up six-year plans for how much prison space the state will need, they rely on factors that include arrest and conviction trends, but not test scores or any other education data. A policy group convened at the end of the process discusses general social issues, Green added.
Prison officials in California called the claim "absolutely untrue," saying they must perennially debunk assertions that the state uses elementary reading in prison forecasts.
So, you would think McAuliffe might backtrack a little, having been busted advancing an urban legend as a factual basis for its policy.
Uh, not exactly. The article states:
Since the ad began airing in Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke, McAuliffe's campaign has said third-grade scores aren't part of the official formula Virginia uses to plot prison construction. But the campaign says the ad was designed as a tangible and understandable way to bring home the idea that quality preschool is a smart investment.
"We feel comfortable using third-grade reading scores as a way of communicating, in shorthand, the importance of education in predictions of long-term social behavior, including predictions about crime rates, which are then used to determine the number of prison beds that we are constructing," said McAuliffe communications director Delacey Skinner.
Let me get this straight. McAuliffe is "comfortable" spreading stories he knows to be urban legends, rather than using actual facts, because it is a convenient way to generate public support for a policy he favors.
The mere fact that it happens to be in support of a good policy in no way changes things -- as a matter of principle, this is wrong. Facts matter.