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“It just means a lot more children will not get the kinds of services and opportunities they need, and as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs. ... There are literally teachers now who are getting pink slips, who are getting notices that they can’t come back this fall.”

— Education Secretary Arne Duncan, CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Feb. 24, 2013

“Yes, there’s a district where it’s happened. But, again, it’s just because they have an earlier union notification than most, so Kanawha County, West Virginia. … In that district, to be clear, it’s Title I teachers and Head Start teachers, so it’s these funding sources that are being cut. Whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know, but these are teachers who are getting pink slips now.”

— Duncan, White House briefing, Feb. 27

Duncan’s claim, on one of the Sunday morning shows, that teachers were already getting pink slips because of the looming sequester was actually the second time he had made this assertion.

“I was on a call yesterday, people are starting to give RIF [reduction in force] notes,” Duncan said in a meeting with reporters Feb. 21, three days before his appearance on CBS. “Schools are already starting to give teachers notices.”

Oddly, however, the Education Department for days was unable to cough up the name of a single school district where these notices had been delivered. Then, on Wednesday, Duncan appeared before the White House press corps and produced a name — Kanawha County in West Virginia — with a major league caveat. “Whether it’s all sequester-related, I don’t know,” he said.

Duncan’s spokesman, Daren Briscoe, said in an e-mail that “the information shared on the call was that just over 100 teachers and Head Start teachers had received layoff notices.”

Unlike the dubious figure that “40,000 teachers could lose their jobs” — more on that below — this at least was specific information. So let’s check it out.

The Facts

The first thing that was striking about this figure of 100 teachers is that it was higher than the estimate in the state-by-state impact of the sequester released by the White House over the weekend. For the entire state of West Virginia, the White House said, “around 80 teacher and aide jobs [were] at risk.” And yet here, according to Duncan, was a single county with 100 potential layoffs. (Update: the fact sheet also mentioned a reduction in funds for another 40 “teachers, aides and staff” who help children with disabilities.)

But as we dug into it, the story got even odder. There were no news reports of pending layoffs. The school board was facing a $4.5 million shortfall, but just last week had landed a big victory worth as much as $3 million when the state Supreme Court ruled it no longer had to help fund the county’s library. The big issue at the moment was a push by the schools superintendent to crack down on teacher absenteeism — not the pending layoffs that the education secretary had announced on national television.

In fact, few in the county seemed to know what Duncan was talking about, including the education reporters who cover the school district for the Charleston, W.V., newspapers. “There’s very little sequestration-related panic, at least on the education side of things,” one reporter said.

Our colleague Lyndsey Layton helped unravel the mystery.

She discovered that these were not layoffs, but rather “transfer notices” sent to 104 Title I teachers for reasons unrelated to the sequestration cuts. (West Virginia is considering requiring counties to set aside 20 percent of their budgets for their lowest-achieving schools.) Pam Padon, director of federal programs and Title 1 for the Kanawha County public schools, told Layton that ultimately, five or six jobs might be lost though the state-mandated change. But in the meantime, the notices only mean that teachers might end up with a new assignment.

“The major impact is not so much sequestration,” Padon said. “Those five or six jobs would already be gone regardless of sequestration.”

What about Head Start? It turns out that those notices were issued because the county program is not getting automatically renewed but must compete for funding with other districts.

UPDATE: We spoke late Thursday with Kanawha schools superintendent Ron Duerring after he sent out a confusing tweet suggesting Duncan was right. (Duncan retweeted it, asking for a reduction of his Pinocchio score.) He confirmed that no teachers have received “pink slips” and none have been told they are not coming back in the fall. “We do not know what the cuts are,” he said. “Then we will make that determination.” He said that a “few people” will likely lose their jobs because of the new state Title I rules, and that sequestration will add to the county’s burden.

In other words, Duncan’s scare story about teacher layoffs — right now, at this moment — was apparently too good to check. If the Obama administration had learned anything about the Susan Rice-Benghazi debacle, you would have thought it was to make sure the talking points for the Sunday shows are rock-solid. Given that Duncan had made this claim once to reporters, couldn’t anyone in his office have bothered to pick up the phone and double-check the information?

The administration has been on thin ice with some of its claims about the impact of the sequestration cuts. Duncan’s assertion that “as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs” also appears to be hyperbole.

An aide to Duncan described it as a “rough back-of-the-envelope calculation,” derived by dividing the average pay and benefits of a teacher — $70,000 — by the amount — $2.8 billion — that needed to be cut in education programs.

But that amounts to false precision. Teacher salaries vary greatly across the nation, and within districts. School districts and states may find many ways to juggle funds or reduce expenses to avoid losing many teachers, which is what has happened during previous periods of financial stress.

The American Association of School Administrators this week released a report, based on a survey, that estimates that “at least 37,000 education jobs” would be lost through sequestration. That at least is based on something more than a rough calculation, though of course it is in the interest of this group to sound the alarm.

Moreover, note that the group refers to “education jobs,” not teachers. We have previously found that 67 percent of education jobs could be broadly defined as being held by teachers or teaching assistants. That would translate into a reduction of about 25,000 teachers, based on AASA’s survey data.

The Pinocchio Test

There is little debate that across-the-board spending cuts in education funding will cause pain for some schools and states. But there is no reason to hype the statistics — or to make scary pronouncements on pink slips being issued based on misinformation.

Indeed, Duncan’s lack of seriousness about being scrupulously factual undercuts the administration’s claim that the cuts are a serious problem.

Duncan made this claim not once, not twice, but three times. Let this be a teachable moment for him: Next time, before going on television, check your facts.

Four Pinocchios

UPDATE, March 4: Duncan told reporters that he had used the “wrong word” when he referred to pink slips. “Language matters, and I need to be very, very clear,” he said at a news conference.

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