In "Ann", Holland Taylor's one-woman play about the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, Taylor (as Richards) tells a story about how George Washington was born in Texas and chopped down the "family Mesquite tree" that was "the only shade tree for 50 miles." His father confronted him, and of course little George says, "I cannot tell a lie."
"And his father says, 'Well son, we are going to have to move to Virginia," said Taylor. "And George says, 'Oh father, do we have to move because I shamed the family because I cut down the little tree?' And his father says, 'No son. It's because if you can't tell a lie you ain't gonna amount to anything in Texas!'"
Rick Perry's father never moved him from Texas.
In his State of the State speech, Perry bragged that "our graduation rates are at an all-time high -- the third highest in the nation -- which represents a significant turnaround from just a few short years ago."
Actually, Texas ranked fourth, behind Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin, but quibbling over whether Perry can count to four ignores what a big step this is for "Governor Oops." The real news here is that only three years ago Texas ranked 29th in graduation rate. Increasing the percentage of kids you move through high school from 75.4 percent to 86 percent is big news, no matter what the ranking.
How did he accomplish this marvelous feat? It's very simple. Perry moved Texas from 29th to 4th in the country in graduation rate by making Galveston disappear.
Don't worry, Galveston is still there. Hurricane Ike couldn't kill Galveston, and to imagine that Perry could make the island's 50,000 inhabitants disappear would ascribe to him far more skill than he's ever shown in office. But that's how many kids he makes disappear every year to boost his graduation rate.
It's basic math. The way Texas used to calculate the dropout rate was by adding the 8th, 9th and 10th grades, dividing by three, and making that your denominator, and then using that to calculate what percentage of kids graduate four years later. That formula yielded an inconvenient truth that about a quarter to a third of Texas students never graduated, making Texas about average compared to the other states.
This changed not when Texas graduated more students but when we counted fewer dropouts. About 50,000 of them got erased from the books every year, or roughly the population of Galveston. When the Class of 2011 showed up for the 9th grade, there were 356,183 of them. But when it came time to calculate their graduation rate, the original class was now 319,588. What changed?
Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig of the University of Texas didn't believe the hype and asked for the data. What the state revealed was a case of bureaucratic evil. Perry says, truthfully it turns out, that a thousand people a day move to Texas, but to believe that he's slashed the dropout rate you'd have to accept that 10,000 kids a year moved back to Mexico, that 20,000 kids enrolled in out-of-state schools, and 15,000 students began home schooling. In other words, while everyone else is coming to Texas, our high school population seems to be leaving the state.
Don't believe it? You're not alone.
"That's just ridiculous," said Brian D. Ray, founder of the National Home Education Research Institute. "It doesn't sound very believable." When you can't convince the home school people that they have 15,000 new customers, you're probably cooking the books. "We call it dumping," said Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition.
They tried this in El Paso. So many kids were convinced to drop out by school officials that people around town started calling them "los desaparecidos," or the disappeared. Perry's education department investigated in 2010 but cleared superintendant Lorenzo Garcia. The FBI looked into it, and now Garcia's in federal prison.
Perry may have taken the wrong lesson from El Paso, but never let it be said that he can't tell a tall tale and make you like it. If a facility for lying is a prerequisite for success in Texas politics, it's no wonder Perry's king.