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Yankton Enemies of Public Education Show How to Lie with Charts

Yankton voters go to the polls today to vote on a $4.2-million-per-year property tax opt-out to make up for the state's unwillingness to meet its obligation to support K-12 education.

By hiring an out-of-state consultant, opponents of the opt-out have made clear they want to dismantle the public education system and perhaps refight the Civil War.

In their last-minute flyer, the opponents also make clear they are masters of manipulating statistics and charts. Check out this graphic from their very recent mailing:

Yankton Opt-Out Opponents Chart of Full-Time Equivalents vs. Average Daily Enrollment
Yankton school FTEs vs ADA, as graphically manipulated by opt-out opponents


The point of this chart is to show a dramatic increase in employees versus a dramatic decrease in student enrollment. The problem for the propagandists is that neither figure is all that dramatic. Over the six fiscal years depicted, FTEs increased less than 4%, while enrollment decreased maybe 7%.

Thus, too make the numbers look more dramatic, the opponents commit two classic abuses of scale:

  1. They drop the lower 90% of the vertical scale, showing just the tops of the data columns to exaggerate the small changes.
  2. They overlay two very different axes: jobs measured in hundreds and students measured in thousands, with no perspective given on how those numbers correlate.

A more honest chart of this data would look like this:

Yankton school FTEs vs ADA
Yankton school FTEs vs ADA, at objective scale

Now let's try this same exercise with the Yankton opt-out opponents' chart of the Yankton School District's total annual expenditures since Fiscal Year 2003:

Yankton school expenditures vs ADA, as graphically manipulated by opt-out opponents
Yankton school FTEs vs ADA, as graphically manipulated by opt-out opponents

The manipulation of the vertical axis is again obvious. Drop the first $18 million, and these bars make it look like Yankton has septupled its spending on education. Ha!

A more honest representation of the budget numbers would look like this:

Yankton school expenditures vs ADA, at objective scale
Yankton school FTEs vs ADA, at objective scale, with purchasing power calculations

The blue bars represent the actual dollar expenditures. Yes, they still go up, just under 15% over the entire period, including the dip this year.

The red bars show what happens if we factor in something else the opt-out-opponents deliberately omit: inflation. According to these annual inflation figures, the $22.6 million the Yankton schools are spending this year is worth $19.1 million in 2003 dollars. So the inflation-adjusted, practical increase in expenditures over the time period depicted is less than 3%.

And as the Displaced Plainsman ably points out, Yankton and every other South Dakota school district have had to do much more over the last few years to satisfy No Child Left Behind and South Dakota's increased graduation requirements. The opt-out opponents make no attempt to account for the added work the schools have had to do that might explain the increased spending.

The opt-out opponents can rightly state that Yankton is spending more money on more teachers but on fewer students now than it did in 2005. But their manipulative visual representation of the data masks their ignorance of economics and policy.


  1. Matt Groce 2011.05.24

    I have the words "I'm not against education, but..." ringing in my ears today. Good luck Yankton.

  2. Bruce C. Boatwright 2011.05.24

    Who said something about "...lies, damn lies, and statistics"?


  3. Wayne B. 2011.05.24

    I don't care much for your first chart, Cory - there's not enough scale to show any change. Without labels on each bar, we have no clue what's going on. All we can tell is FTEs looks stable, though enrollment is noticeably declining.

    I think the better way to graph that first topic is students : FTEs. That way it's one stat to plot. Univariate analysis is easier than multivariate analysis - easier to display & digest.

    Same thing with the second - show a breakdown of dollars spent per student and we may see something.

    I like the original charts in that they give good delineation. I dislike them in that they throw too much information at you and hope you can read them. The lack of a bottom does create opportunities for misinterpretation.

    However, we should be concerned with the changes in budgets, FTEs and enrollments.

    Looks like Yankton lost 220 kids over 6 years (guessing 2870 in 2005 vs 2650 in 2010). That's almost an 8% decline. Take that against 7 new FTEs in the same time span (about 4% increase)... I don't understand that. It doesn't make a lot of sense to add employees when you're making less money, unless you're fairly confident those new employees will help you make more money...

    Why did Yankton add 7 FTEs during declining student enrollments? With state aid declines, that doesn't make a lot of sense... 220 * $4,000 = $880,000 less over those six years. That's a lot less revenue to go around...

    To look at it another way:
    Why did Yankton go from 8.4 students per FTE in 2005 to 7.3 students per FTE in 2010? Is that enough of a change to worry about? What's the average Student : FTE rate for other midwest schools?

    Sparks lots of interesting questions.

  4. Stan Gibilisco 2011.05.24

    Cory, it looks like you've been reading Statistics DeMystified.

    If only we could hurl a billion dollars at our education system and churn out Einsteins, Descarteses, Lebesgues, Eulers, Teslas, Bourbakis, Michelangelos, Picassos, Mozarts, Gateses, Oppenheimers ...

  5. Troy Jones 2011.05.26

    Cory, your make a good point as the Yankton group is presenting the information to create a picture more extreme than it actually is but then you use the same tactic to create a picture minimizing the change.

    Wayne is exactly right. I would show the following to get a picture

    Students: FTE Teaching Personnel
    Students: FTE Administrative Personnel
    Students: Teacher Payroll (inflation adjusted)
    Students: Administrative Payroll (inflation adjusted)

    These take out all the bias with regard to scale and link together the appropriate measures.

  6. LK 2011.05.26

    Troy, thanks for agreeing that the charts on the yellow mailer were indeed deceptive. The Yankton Press and Dakotan showed the situation without charts:

    "A document has been produced by the Yankton School District showing full-time equivalent employees (FTE) by function in both the school years 2002-03 and 2010-11. There are 10 less FTE K-12 teachers —151.1 to 141.0. In the terms of total number of teachers (including special education, alternative education, music, technology and Title 1) there were 188.1 FTE’s in 2002-03 compared to 180 FTE’s in 2010-11. There are currently more Title I teachers on staff.

    "The total number of paraprofessional employees of the district in 2002-03 was 51 (9 regular classroom and 42 special education) in 2010-11 the total number is 65.6 (9.6 regular classroom and 56 special education).

    The total number of support personel in 2002-03 was 138.55 FTE, currently that number is 132.35 FTE.

    "In the same time frame, student enrollment has gone from 3,104 students to 2,747."

    By my math, total staff numbers dropped by 4 percent. Teaching staff decreased by 9 percent over that time frame. Enrollment is down 12 percent. I would guess that federal stimulus money propped up the employment numbers a bit.

    None of that really matters now.

  7. Troy Jones 2011.05.26

    LK, what has this world coming to when one is thanked for just trying to present facts straight up. Shouldn't both sides aspire to presenting the facts straight up and then argue about the facts?

  8. Mike Stunes 2011.05.26

    Troy, I believe it was Mark Twain who said, "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."

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