Fact Check: Jensen misstates test score slump; Walz's COVID claim lacks data

Education is a flashpoint in the Minnesota governor's race, as Republican challenger Scott Jensen hammers DFL Gov. Tim Walz about falling test scores and time missed in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as the two candidates criticized each other's policies this week, a FOX 9 Fact Check finds that Jensen overstated Minnesota's test score decline compared with the rest of the country, while Walz made a claim about classroom time for which he lacked data.

Jensen on test scores

Jensen and running mate Matt Birk went on the offensive about education spending and performance.

"When half our kids can't read and do math at grade level, we have a problem," Birk said at a news conference from the Minnesota GOP's State Fair booth.

Those data points are true: just 45% of Minnesota students are proficient at math and 51% at reading. Both statistics represent a decrease from the start of Walz's term in 2019.

But then, at the same news conference, Jensen took it a step further by saying Minnesota taxpayers aren't getting what they've paid for with K-12 schools.

"Could someone please tell me what 'fully funded' means?" Jensen said, criticizing a term that Democrats and teachers' unions use to promote more school funding. "Because we're paying more than an awful lot of states are paying, and we're underperforming them."

This is misleading. Minnesota is not out of the ordinary when it comes to either school funding or the recent drop in student performance.

The state spends about $13,600 per student, good for 20th in the country and fourth in the Midwest, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

As for performance, the U.S. just experienced the largest score drop in reading since 1990 and the first ever score drop in math, according to a newly released federal estimate. There were declines in every region of the country.

Not all schools are failing to make the grade. Of Minnesota's 2,062 public schools, 371 will require significant support from the state because of underperformance, the state Department of Education said in August.

Walz on classroom time

Walz is defending his pandemic-era decisions against Republican criticism. Walz ordered schools to close for two weeks in spring 2020 and then imposed restrictions that led many school districts to switch to remote learning for months.

Yet, during an interview at the State Fair, Walz said 80% of students missed fewer than 10 days in the classroom. Walz did not specify the time period he was talking about; the interviewer asked whether he would've done anything differently about school closures throughout the pandemic.

Many Minnesota students missed far more than 10 classroom days in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, leading Republicans to label Walz's comment as obviously false. Two days later, in an interview with FOX 9, Walz said he was talking specifically about the 2021-22 school year.

FOX 9 asked the governor's office and the Minnesota Department of Education for Walz's source on the 80% figure. Kevin Burns, a spokesman for the state Education Department said the agency didn't have such data because it stopped tracking learning models after the 2020-21 year.

The 80% figure was an estimate the governor made himself, said Claire Lancaster, Walz's spokeswoman. Burns called it a "conservative estimate."

With a lack of statewide data, we are unable to verify Walz's revised claim.

Wanting to test the governor's claim, we sampled individual school districts for the 2021-22 year. We couldn't check all 327 Minnesota public school districts, so we sampled several of the largest and found they generally track with Walz's claim of 10 or fewer days missed.

Some, including Brooklyn Center and Fridley, missed more than 10 days, according to district officials and news reports. Others, such as Minneapolis, Osseo, and Rochester, came in at or just below the 10-day threshold.

And others, including three of the state's biggest school districts - Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan - missed little or no classroom time, district officials said.

FOX 9 Fact Check: Here's our rating system

  • True: accurate information that requires little or no additional context
  • Needs clarification: mostly accurate information that leaves out context that would be helpful to voters
  • Not the whole story: the information presented leaves out a significant amount of context that could lead voters to a different conclusion
  • Misleading: partial information presented in a way that misleads voters
  • False: inaccurate information, or information presented out of context