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Opening Arguments

By the numbers

I don't mean to make light of the problem of student homelessness, but neither do I appreciate numbers being used in such a way to make it sound worse than it actually is:

The number of Indiana public school students who are homeless has jumped in recent years -- and is expected to climb further -- as high foreclosure and unemployment rates leave more parents struggling to provide stable homes for their children.

During the 2005-2006 school year, Indiana public schools recorded 7,547 homeless students, according to an issue brief released today by the Indiana Youth Institute. The number jumped to 8,249 the following year and to 8,480 during the 2007-2008 school year -- marking a 12 percent increase over two years.

A 12 percent increase? Heavens.

But what is lacking is the perspective we'd get from knowing the total enrollment, which also increased during the period, from 1,034,727 to 1,046,609. Calculating the actual percentage of homeless students, we get a fraction of 1 percent for each school year: .0073, .0079, .0081. And notice there was a bigger jump from 05-06 to 06-07 than there was from 96-07 to 07-08. Since the recession is said to have started in December of 07 or January of 08, the claim that the "disturbing increase in homeless students is not surprising given the recent economic decline" should be regarded with some skepticism.