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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 9:44 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 11:01 AM

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The Truth Needle: Details don't add up in Times Co.'s McKenna ads

Truth Needle: Two ads in The Seattle Times supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna make several claims. Some are true, some are not.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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The claim: The Seattle Times has been running newspaper ads supporting Republican Rob McKenna's candidacy for governor. Two recent ads — one focused on education, the other on jobs — made a variety of claims. The education ad notes the student failure rate in K-12 schools, per-student funding and how well prepared students are for college. The jobs ad addresses the state's unemployment rate.

What we found: Half true

The ads are an independent-expenditure campaign by the corporate side of The Seattle Times Co., which said it is running a series of political ads as an experiment to attract more political advertising. The company said the ads were prepared by a contractor it declined to name.

The education ad promotes McKenna as being the best candidate to address "our looming education crisis." It says the state will spend $16 billion on education this biennium "yet the results we get are disappointing."

The $16 billion is the combination of state taxes that will be spent educating students from kindergarten through college in 2011-2013, according to the state's Office of Financial Management.

The ad makes several claims, some true, some not:

• "In 2010-2011 Washington ranked 33rd in the nation when it comes to per-student funding in K-12. We spend on average $1,000 less for each student."

That ranking comes from a state Senate Ways and Means Committee report that says Washington's total per-pupil spending was $10,333, about $1,000 less than the national average.

The claim is accurate, but it leaves out an important caveat from the report's authors: "Comparisons with other states, while interesting, often do not lend themselves to any definitive conclusions regarding each state's K-12 finance system, due to differences in reporting practices, demographics and public-school funding systems."

That said, there are a lot of ways to measure per-pupil spending, and in the commonly used measures, the state consistently ranks below the national average. We find this claim true.

• "The failure rate in K-12 is 41.7 percent — 18.3 percent of students drop out and 24.4 percent fail to graduate from high school."

This claim is way off.

First the math is wrong; the addition is off by one. But the real problem is the way the failure rate was calculated.

In reality, the failure rate — meaning the percentage of ninth-graders who don't graduate in four years — is about 23 percent. When you count students who finish in five years, it's 22 percent. Those are the most recent figures from the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, based on a U.S. Department of Education formula that all states are required to use.

In an email, Seattle Times Co. spokeswoman Jill Mackie said the contractor who put together the ads erred by adding the state's dropout rate to the failure-to-graduate rate. That's a mistake because the failure-to-graduate rate already includes dropouts.

Due to the significant inaccuracy, we find this claim false.

• "50 percent of high-school graduates who attend community or technical college require remedial classes in basic skills."

This claim is trickier.

It's true half of the high-school graduates who enroll in community and technical colleges within a year of earning their diplomas take one or more remedial classes in reading, writing or math. In fact, it's more than half — 57 percent for the class of 2009, according to the latest report from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The need for remedial classes is a problem. But by using the phrase "basic skills," the ad may leave the impression that the graduates don't know how to read or write or do basic math.

Most of those students lack college-level math skills — about 51 percent of the students took remedial math, compared with 20 percent in writing and 11 percent in reading. Many students take remedial math because they didn't take enough math in high school. Washington students currently can meet all the requirements for high-school graduation without taking enough math to be ready for college.

Because there is some question about what "basic skills" means, we find this claim mostly true, which under our definition means it is true but requires explanation or more information.

• "Washington is 47th in the nation in the percentage of 18-24 year olds in college full time."

That ranking is from U.S. census data about students in that age range who are attending college in the state. It does not include those at out-of-state or foreign colleges. This claim is true.

The jobless ad talks about McKenna's plan to improve the economy. It starts with the claim that Washington has the seventh-highest rate of unemployment. That overstates our national ranking.

Washington ranks 16th highest in unemployment based on the most common measure: a monthly household survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In September, Washington's unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. The national rate was 7.8 percent for the same month.

If you look at both unemployment and underemployment — people who have given up looking for work, and part-time employees looking for full-time work — Washington does have the seventh-highest ranking, along with Florida and South Carolina, according to the bureau's statistics. Those statistics show that 17 percent of Washington's labor force is either unemployed or underemployed.

Mackie, the Times Co. spokeswoman, acknowledged the error. She said "the '7th in the country' reference was in an early draft that should have been fact-checked prior to finalizing the ad, but that step was very unfortunately overlooked. We are reviewing the facts and will edit the ads to change out facts determined not to be supported by reliable sources. The ad will not run again until those changes are made."

The ad also states that "eleven of the state's 39 counties face unemployment rates of 10 percent or greater." But, as of September, that number was actually nine, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Mackie said the ad was prepared before the September unemployment figures came out Oct. 17 showing the lower rate in some counties.

We find the statewide unemployment ranking false and the county numbers half true, because the figures were out of date.

To sum up, two claims are true, one mostly true, one half true and two are false. Because the false statements don't negate the ads' overriding assertions that education has problems and the economy is struggling, we find the ads' claims overall half true.

Staff researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com or on Twitter @susankelleher

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359; lshaw@seattletimes.com or on Twitter, @LShawST

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