— Obama senior adviser David Axelrod, on ABC’s “This Week,” June 10, 2012

Defending President Obama against his blooper that the “private sector is doing fine,” Axelrod stressed that government jobs at the state and local level have been hit hard ever since the president’s stimulus funds ran dry. He specifically mentioned huge declines in teaching jobs.

We wondered about the source of those figures. We also recalled that the White House, pushing the president’s jobs bill, had warned in a report last fall that “state and local funding cuts put as many as 280,000 teacher jobs at risk next year.” We were curious, now that the school year is nearly over, what actually happened to all those teacher jobs.

The Facts

Axelrod’s figures are derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment database. The number of jobs in state and local government has fallen by 450,000 since February 2010 — that’s Axelrod’s “almost half a million.” And then in a category known as “local government education,” the number of jobs has declined by 226,300.

That’s 50.2 percent of the overall state and local jobs, and thus might qualify for the word “most” — if all were actually teachers. An administration official said that the local government-education figure is “the best proxy for teacher jobs,” frequently used by analysts.

But a spokesman for the BLS said that was not correct: “It means the number of jobs in the local education industry has declined.”

As anyone who has children in public schools knows, there are many people employed by the school who have little to do with teaching, such as administrators, nurses, “food preparation workers,” and so forth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provided us with a detailed breakdown of the jobs that fall under the local education category, which comes from a survey known Occupational Employment Statistics.

The numbers are not directly comparable to the monthly employment stats, though they are fairly close, but the BLS said the percentage breakdown of various job categories provides a sense of how many local education jobs are actually held by teachers. (For those interested in more information, we embedded the data below but because it is a spreadsheet, the key numbers don’t show up until page 8. Subcategories are beneath overall categories labeled as “major.”)

For instance, about 10 percent of the total education jobs are in administration or clerical support, 5 percent are food preparation workers, 4 percent are janitors, and 3 percent are bus drivers. All told, only about 67 percent of the jobs could be broadly defined as being held by “teachers,” which includes teaching assistants (11 percent of the jobs). That’s being generous, because if only full-time teachers are counted, it works out to about 50 percent.

So, applying a formula of 67 percent to the local government-education figure brings the number of teachers down to no more than 150,000. That’s a large number, but it’s much less than the 250,000 claimed by Axelrod — and only about one-third of all all state and local government jobs, not “most.”

And what of the White House prediction that 280,000 teacher jobs were at risk? We will not burden you with the details of how that figure was derived (the methodology is on page 8), but essentially officials took projected state budget shortfalls compiled by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and translated those into K-12 budget cuts, assuming that the “full negative impact” of potential budget cuts was felt as teacher layoffs.

Clearly, that was not going to happen, as schools have various ways to cut costs before resorting to teacher layoffs. The American Association of School Administrators in May 2011 projected “227,000 education jobs are on the chopping block for the 2011-2012 school year.” But note that it was more careful to say “education jobs,” not teachers.

Neither the CBPP nor the AASA has updated its estimates. The AASA did issue a new report, in March, showing that schools were still under financial pressure. The report noted that a representative survey indicated that 1.8 percent of payroll was cut by schools in the past school year, less than the year before (2.2 percent), and administrators anticipated cutting 1.3 percent in the coming school year.

Indeed, according to the BLS, the number of local education jobs has fallen by 50,000 since September. Applying our formula, that means no more than 33,500 teaching jobs were lost — less than one-sixth of the headline number touted by the White House nine months ago.

“The point of the report was that these jobs were at risk, and the only way to avoid them without additional resources was to make other sub-optimal cuts,” the administration official said. “We made clear that the alternative for school districts would be to cut back on other basic services — shrinking after school programs, cutting support staff, increasing class sizes” — which is what the AASA survey indicates took place.

Those are fair points, but it’s a nuance probably lost on most when the report was titled “Teacher Jobs at Risk.”

The Pinocchio Test

In both instances, we see a tendency to inflate the risk to and impact on teachers. Clearly, schools are under financial pressure, and difficult choices must be made. But that does not give the Obama campaign or the White House license to hype the figures so far beyond reality.

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