Wisconsin Union Backers Defame Virginia and Spread Bogus Statistics

by Hans Bader on February 26, 2011 · 1 comment

in Features, Labor, Politics as Usual, Regulation, Zeitgeist

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Virginia schools have better-than-average test scores. Virginia obviously doesn’t rank an abysmal 44th in the nation on SATs and ACTs, as supporters of Wisconsin government-employee unions keep falsely claiming. They’re making that claim up because Virginia bans collective bargaining by government employees, and Wisconsin, which currently mandates collective bargaining in government agencies, is considering proposals by its newly-elected conservative governor to bar such bargaining in areas like pensions, which frequently result in government costs being passed on to future generations.

In 2009, Virginia ranked in the middle of states on the ACT and SAT, and in 2010, it actually outranked Wisconsin on the ACT (12th vs. 17th in “average composite score“). The reason it doesn’t rank higher on the SAT is because so many of its students take the test – including marginal students who wouldn’t even take them in another state. (Wisconsin boasts a higher average SAT score than Virginia partly because only “four percent” of Wisconsin students took the SAT, compared to “67 percent” in Virginia. Virginia’s lower average SAT score is a function of a larger pool, not dumb students or bad schools, as PolitiFact pointed out in debunking the false claim that Virginia ranks 44th.)

As the Washington Post once noted, “Virginia public schools are among the top five state school systems in the nation, according to an annual report released yesterday by one of the country’s most respected education organizations.”

The flacks for the Wisconsin government-employee unions are also claiming that Wisconsin’s budget crisis was manufactured and that it would be running a surplus if it were not for tax cuts backed by the state’s new governor.

This claim was previously debunked by the liberal-leaning Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, as I noted earlier this week. But it also defies basic math, since those tax cuts were so tiny. As National Review’s Kevin Williamson notes, “How exactly do $137 million in tax cuts cause a $3.6 billion deficit in two years? I am dying to know. . . getting a $3.6 billion deficit out of a $137 million tax cut is a pretty good rabbit-outta-the-hat trick.” Moreover, the cuts haven’t even gone into effect yet.

Virginia is fiscally much better run than Wisconsin, which makes it odd that supporters of Wisconsin government-employee unions are so hell-bent on comparing Virginia and Wisconsin. Former congressional economist Chris Edwards notes that Wisconsin residents “may be interested in comparing their government’s fiscal and union policies with policies in the Old Dominion.”


  • Collective bargaining (monopoly unionism) in place for government workers, with about 52 percent of state/local workers in unions (Source: Table 1 here)
  • State debt as a share of income: 4.6% (Source: Moody’s)
  • State unfunded pension obligations as a share of GDP: 32% (Source: Andrew Biggs)
  • Score on quality of state government management: B- (Source: Pew Center)
  • Score on Pew’s subcategory for “people” management: B-


  • Collective bargaining in state and local government banned by a 1993 statute signed into law by Democratic Governor Douglas Wilder
  • State debt as a share of income: 2.1%
  • State unfunded pension obligations as a share of GDP: 17%
  • Score on quality of state government management: A-
  • Score on Pew’s subcategory for “people” management: A”

Wisconsin is one of the most heavily-taxed states in the country, and its government employees are paid much better than the state’s taxpayers. Even if the Wisconsin governor’s proposed restrictions on collective bargaining and restrictions on employee benefits become law, Wisconsin government employees will still be paid better than in most states, and have more collective bargaining rights than in many states — such as the states of Virginia, Georgia, Texas, and the Carolinas, where collective bargaining by government employees is banned. They will also have less work to do than employees in other Midwestern states like Indiana, which have far fewer public employees per capita.

It’s also not true that “tea baggers” or “right-wing Republicans” are responsible for Virginia’s ban on collective bargaining in government agencies. As Edwards notes, Virginia’s ban is contained in a 1993 law signed into law by a Democratic governor (with bipartisan support).

Image credit: Madison Guy’s flickr photostream.

Ole Dominion March 3, 2011 at 5:10 pm

If you look at the distributions of test-takers of the PSAT, I think you'll find some other anomalies beside just the self-selecting nature of the test-takers based on participate rates. In Wisconsin, 85.5 percent of the test-takers identified themselves as "White", while Virginia was 57.7 (presumably, Virginia includes far more ESL students in their classrooms, and far more African-Americans, who tend to score much lower on these tests, for reasons I won't speculate on.)

As for self-reported grades of the test-takers, VA's test-takers are 43.2% "A" students, while Wisconsin test-takers report 57.8 percent. If grades are measured against population (that is, the percentage of "A" students in a distribution should be the same everywhere ), it's pretty clear that Wisconsin, for whatever reason, is stacking the deck by virtue of those who take the tests, and those who don't.

Now, with a far higher proportion of immigrants and ESL students and the apparent gerrymandering of the test populations, it's very difficult to compare effectiveness of school systems of the two states using these test results.

However, it's still interesting to note – the PSAT NMST semi-finalist cutoff scores for 2011 – that is, the score a test-taker needs to achieve to be considered in the top 1% of students in their state?

Virginia – 218
Texas – 215
Georgia – 214
North Carolina – 214
Wisconsin – 209
South Carolina – 208

The lowest cut-off is 202, the highest is 223 – clearly, Wisconsin is at the bottom of the scale.

And if you consider the challenging demographics of these states vs. Wisconsin's, well, it's not looking good for Wisconsin at all.

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