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In Politics, Fact, Fancy Can Blur in Keystroke
Bogus Claim Linking Jail, School Raised Election After Election

By Maria Glod and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 4, 2009


Empty desks line the dimly lit elementary classroom. A map of the United States hangs on the wall. As quiet music plays, the camera pulls back and prison bars close over the sobering scene.

"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.

The startling claim has been cited by McAuliffe and one of his rivals, Brian Moran, as they seek the Democratic nomination for governor. It is an appealing bit of political rhetoric, providing a cinematic illustration of the benefits of expanding preschool: Society will reap long-term savings by spending money early on education.

In the world of politics, dubious claims can harden into conventional wisdom in a keystroke. Political campaigns now have access to an unlimited catalogue of reports, speeches and essays that swirl on the Internet. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Colin L. Powell and even the organizers of the Alexandria literacy festival have pointed to the link as a frightening example of how children can go astray. The Washington Post and the New York Times have published opinion columns that reference the connection.

"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."

Campaign trail rhetoric has a tendency to value the emotional impact of a statement first and the facts second. During last year's presidential campaign, Democrat Barack Obama took heat for telling an NAACP forum that there are more young black males in prison than in college. Census data appear to dispute this. Republican Rudolph Giuliani said his chances of surviving prostate cancer were twice as high in the United States as in Britain "under socialized medicine," a claim later debunked. Democrat John Edwards insisted that the North American Free Trade Agreement has cost Americans "millions of jobs" but later was unable to cite a source.

But the effort to link third-grade reading scores and prison population has been particularly persistent -- hopscotching from one campaign season to another.

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.

Everyone agrees that children who get a poor start in school are more likely to struggle academically and later fall prey to social ills. It's a point that McAuliffe has been joined in making by Moran, a former delegate, and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), another Democratic rival. Each has called for boosting state spending on early childhood education.

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.

Moran made a statement similar to McAuliffe's in a radio interview last month: "If you don't have them by third grade, it's hard to get them back. We use our third-grade reading exams to determine potential for prison later on."

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. Last year, he said, a member of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's staff called to check it out.

Prison officials in California called the claim "absolutely untrue," saying they must perennially debunk assertions that the state uses elementary reading in prison forecasts. A New York-based education group co-founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein pulled the information from its Web page in April after an online journalism site labeled it "fiction."

Still, the contention persists, growing more credible with each repetition. Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, former head of the U.S. Education Department's research arm, is sometimes cited as a source of the claim. He said he heard it and repeated it about six years ago in comments that can be found on the Internet. Later, he tried to trace it to its source and came up blank.

"I don't know if it is true or not and regret contributing to the dissemination of what may be an urban legend," Whitehurst said this week.

In campaign literature distributed with the ad, McAuliffe pegged the line to comments made by Norfolk Judge Jerrauld Jones at a teen violence summit he attended last year with another politician. Through his secretary, Jones, former director of the state Juvenile Justice Department, declined to comment.

The campaign also noted a state Department of Criminal Justice Services report that lists failure on third-grade reading tests as a factor that increases the risk of committing a crime.

Where else might McAuliffe have gotten the idea? Robley Jones, lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association, said possibly from him. Jones said he can remember saying something very similar at a recent roundtable discussion on education attended by McAuliffe.

"If it's an urban legend, I'm probably one of those guilty of keeping it alive, because I thought it was true," Jones said.

Jones said he plans to stop saying that the state uses the scores to plan prison construction -- but he said he believes there is a correlation. "I think it may be almost a meaningless distinction, whether or not Virginia is actually using the figure," he said. "The fact of the matter is that the figure could be used accurately."

Diana Owen, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University, said that despite the input of experts, future candidates will now have one more source to use to make the same claim. "A factoid like that will have another life in another campaign," she said. "Now that that ad's out there, people will cite the ad. I'm sure of it."

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