George W. Bush famously accused opponent Al Gore, during one of their Campaign 2000 debates, of using “fuzzy math” to burnish his “too-good-to-be-true” tax plan.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and some of his appointees may have been watching, but instead of seeing fuzzy math as a danger, it looks like they took it as a challenge.
They’ve been touting increases in graduation rates and major efficiencies at City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, but recent disclosures raise questions about many of those numbers.
At City Colleges, officials tell us the graduation rate has doubled in the last five years, from 7 to 14 percent, but that’s based on narrow federal guidelines that exclude part-time students and those who are re-enrolling in college—a whooping 95 percent of the system’s total student population.
That means the “big jump” is based on awarding degrees to only 777 graduates in 2014, less than one percent of the system’s 100,000-plus students.
That’s worth bragging about?
A better measure of success is the overall number of students who get either diplomas or certificates. But as Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported, officials are also playing with those numbers.
City Colleges aggressively embraces the awarding of diplomas to former students who earned enough credits to get a sheepskin but transferred, dropped out or died before receiving one.
In the past two years, 1,413 retroactive diplomas were issued, compared with only 626 in the previous four years.
Officials claim retroactivity is being utilized across the country to give credit where credit is due, but considering that most of those credits were earned years ago, it seems disingenuous to count those diplomas in 2014 or 2015.
Graduation rates at Chicago Public Schools are also suspect. A BGA/WBEZ investigation found thousands of students mislabeled as transfers when they should have been counted as dropouts. After the report, CPS officials revised the graduation rates down a few percentage points.
Schools CEO Forrest Claypool says the district made a statistical error, but it looks more like human error—pressure on principals to report higher graduation rates.
Fuzzy math also applies to the budgets of CPS and City Colleges—Emanuel and his appointed leaders tossing out big numbers that don’t hold up under close scrutiny.
They claim to have trimmed the CPS bureaucracy by nearly a billion dollars in recent years to prevent classroom cuts.
But our budget analysis indicates non-classroom spending hasn’t gone down, and Claypool’s administrators have ignored repeated requests to substantiate their claims.
As for City Colleges, the BGA reported last week that its bureaucracy has grown in the past five years, even as enrollment drops and tuition goes up.
City Colleges admits growth in the central office, but claims savings in “back office” functions “freed up $66 million for academic uses.”
Our analysis, however, indicates education-related spending in the colleges is only up by $10 million, or 4 percent, so the $66 million figure is a mystery.
Education’s not the only place where the Emanuel administration’s been accused of fudging the numbers.
Crime stats have also been challenged by, among others, Chicago magazine.
The problem with fuzzy math is that real people are behind the numbers—people who deserve a city government that confronts reality head-on, not by cooking the books and declaring pyrrhic victories.

Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @andyshawbga.