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Texas Dropouts: Vroom-vroom vs. Gloom-and-doom

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Here’s a study in political contrasts: Yesterday, Rick Perry announced that he’s buying himself a NASCAR sponsorship – temporarily taking over (irony alert) from TaxSlayer.com – and taking that sumbitch on the road.

Meanwhile, Bill White accused Perry of playing fast-and-loose with the state’s dropout rate and challenged him to account for the thousands of students falling through the cracks.

“We need a governor who will work harder to keep our kids in school than on trying to get himself re-elected,” White told the Observer.

By low-balling the dropout rate at just 10 percent, White says the governor is ignoring 800,000 students who, on Perry’s watch, failed to graduate within four years or get a GED.

I’m sorry, Bill, we couldn’t hear you over the 110-decibel roar of Perry’s car going around in circles at 140 mph.

Perry’s response to White’s hammering of the dropout issue has been to tell his opponent that he’s (all together now) “tearing down Texas” – because there’s nothing more offensive than describing reality.

At the same time, Perry is trying to muddy the issue by making it all about competing sets of data.

Yesterday, in a press release, the Perry campaign accused White of “attacking Texas educators by using incorrect statistics related to the graduation rate of Texas students.”

The statement goes on: “Texas does not have a 30 percent dropout rate as White has suggested. The percent of students who enter high school and eventually earn a diploma or equivalent, or who remain in pursuit of a diploma or equivalent, is 90 percent.”

Now, high school graduation rates are notoriously hard to pin down and experts argue over methodology. But what Perry’s citing here is a widely-ridiculed “completion” rate devised by the Texas Education Agency.

The big flaw in the completion rate is that it assumes all students who don’t graduate in four years stay in school and eventually finish. If you buy that I’ve got some oceanfront property in Paint Creek, Texas, I’d like to sell you.

There’s also the matter of school districts ­– to borrow from The Wire – “juking the stats.” Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe but school administrators don’t always accurately report how many kids drop out. Just today, the Houston Press has a story about two schools in HISD falsifying records to turn dropouts into transfer students.

White cites TEA data that show three out of 10 students do not graduate or get a GED within four years. Here, the problem is that students who finish in their fifth or sixth year, or leave and come back later, aren’t taken into account. To his credit, White doesn’t suggest that the 30 percent figure is definitive, merely that Perry is severely downplaying the dropout problem.

“It’s not tearing down Texas to insist that public officials be accountable for their job performance,” White said. “If you want to hold schools and classrooms accountable for the performance of educators then the governor should be willing to be held accountable himself. That’s just leadership.”

Now there’s a radical idea. But can anyone hear over the roar of the Perry machine?

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.