Statement: “Less than half our kids aren’t graduating” from the San Diego Unified School District, Eric Christen, executive director of Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said on the KPBS program These Days on Oct. 14.
Determination: Barely True
Analysis: When we first analyzed Christen’s statement, we declared it false. He was making an argument that San Diego Unified was a poorly performing school district and our figures showed that 84 percent of students had graduated.
We made a mistake though.
Christen’s statement about graduation rates contains a double negative. Since he used two negatives — less and aren’t — the overall meaning flips. Christen essentially said, “More than half our kids are graduating.”
When we first analyzed the statement, we missed the double negative and mistakenly called the statement false. Thankfully, a few loyal readers pointed out the error.
Upon further review, we’ve decided to upgrade the statement to barely true. While technically accurate, the context surrounding Christen’s statement still implied the opposite meaning and the graduation rate far exceeds half of students.
In an interview about the statement, Christen said he didn’t know how many students graduate from San Diego Unified. Christen said he assumed San Diego Unified, an urban district, fared worse than a Colorado school district where he used to be a board member.
The most recent data reported by San Diego Unified shows 84 percent of students graduated in the 2008 school year — significantly more than half. The rate represents the number of grade 12 graduates and the number dropouts across four years of high school.
Graduation estimates vary, depending on numerous factors in the calculation, but even the lowest rates don’t come close to half of students. A 2001 study of urban school districts by the Manhattan Institute estimated that 61 percent of San Diego Unified students graduated.
The statement came during Christen’s appearance KPBS last week to debate Proposition A with Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council. Prop. A would ban the county from requiring project labor agreements, reaffirming its current policy.
Local debate over the agreements intensified last year after the San Diego Unified school board decided to require them for construction projects funded through a $2.1 billion bond measure. It guaranteed unions a considerable role in school repairs across the district for years to come.
The road to that decision began one month after Richard Barrera, John Lee Evans and Shelia Jackson were sworn into office, tilting the board toward a more union friendly majority.
During the KPBS debate, Christen described Proposition A as the latest effort to prevent decisions like the school board’s from happening with the county. Here’s the full context of his statement:
And suddenly, here you come with these three radical, very political board members who came in and said, “The fact that less than half our kids aren’t graduating isn’t really important to us. The fact that most of them are innumerate and illiterate, we’re not going to worry about that. The first thing we’re going to do is discriminate against the overwhelming majority of the construction industry that happens to be nonunion.” And that really woke us up.
The context surrounding Christen’s statement shows he aimed to cast the school district as failing to address its students’ education. When we first called Christen, he confirmed that he intended to say that less than half of students are graduating and acknowledged making an error about graduation rates.
After we published the original version of this Fact Check, Christen rescinded his acknowledgement and wrote in an email that the intent of his statement was its actual meaning: More than half of students are graduating.
We’ve called the statement barely true since it contains an element of truth but it fails to provide critical context. In this case, the description of graduation rates is accurate but the surrounding context — and Christen himself for a short period — implied an opposite meaning.
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