When Paul Peterson asks “Do we really need to spend more on schools?” we already know what he thinks the answer is – an unequivocal NO! Knowing the answer you desire always makes it easier to frame the questions, and like previous years, this year’s Education Next survey of attitudes toward public education provides few surprises.
Before I even gained full access to Peterson’s most recent WSJ Op-ed (e-mailed to me by a family member), I was able to guess pretty much where he was going with it. Here’s how Peterson explains the Ed Next public opinion survey findings:
At first glance, the public seems to agree with this position. In a survey released this week by Education Next, an education research journal, my colleagues and I reported that 65% of the public wants to spend more on our schools. The remaining 35% think spending should either be cut or remain at current levels. That’s the kind of polling data that the president’s political advisers undoubtedly rely upon when they decide to appeal for more education spending.
Yet the political reality is more complex than those numbers suggest. When the people we surveyed were told how much is actually spent in our schools—$12,922 per student annually, according to the most recent government report—then only 49% said they want to pony up more dollars. We discovered this by randomly splitting our sample in half, asking one half the spending question cold turkey, while giving the other half accurate information about current expenditure.
Later in the same survey, we rephrased the question to bring out the fact that more spending means higher taxes. Specifically, we asked: “Do you think that taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease or stay about the same?” When asked about spending in this way, which addresses the tax issue frankly, we found that only 35% support an increase. Sixty-five percent oppose the idea, saying instead that spending should either decrease or stay about the same. The majority also doesn’t want to pay more taxes to support their local schools. Only 28% think that’s a good idea.
So there is the nation’s debt crisis in a nutshell. If people aren’t told that nearly $13,000 is currently being spent per pupil, or if they aren’t reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch, they can be persuaded to think schools should be spending still more.
In other words… yeah… the ignorant general public thinks they want to spend more on schools, but only because they don’t realize how much we are already wasting on public schools! When we clue them into the egregious… no… outrageous… exorbitant spending already going on … and hold a gun to their head… and phrase our question just right… pointing out to them just how stupid we think they are… and how smart we are… then the fix their answer… and become much, much more reasonable!
This explanation is problematic at a number of levels. First, let’s explore the basic model of local voter preferences for spending on local public schools – specifically the information on price and quality that informs those preferences. First, local public school revenue comes from two primary sources – local property taxes paid on various types of properties within school districts and state general funds derived largely from state sales and income taxes. The mix varies widely from state to state. Residential property owners frequently pay their property taxes embedded in monthly mortgage payments and renters pay their landlords’ property taxes embedded in rent prices. Homeowners and renters have at least some feel for the reasonableness of their aggregate monthly housing payments, and some feel for the quality of public services they receive (schools, fire, police, parks, etc.) for the aggregate price they pay. They also have some feel for a) whether they would like those services improved and b) whether they are willing to pay a bit more to support those improvements. In short, a typical taxpayer/survey respondent has a reasonable gut feel regarding their “tax price” paid for the quality of public service provided.
The local taxpayer/voter/survey respondent sufficiently involved with local public schools (having children in the schools, working in the schools, having children who are recent graduates of the schools, or having recently graduated themselves) probably has some indicators of schooling quality in his/her head that guide his/her preference to pay more (or less). Has class size risen, or does it just seem too large? Has the district cut visible programs like music, arts or athletics of late, or has the district increased fees to cover the costs of these programs? As a result, the respondent is at least somewhat able to piece together whether they wish to spend a little more to decrease class sizes, expand programs or reinstate programs previously cut.
But, the typical taxpayer/voter/survey respondent likely a) doesn’t give a damn about and b) is generally unable to contextualize the meaning of the Total per Pupil Expenditures for a local public school district. It’s an abstract concept. A number that relates in a meaningful sense only to those who really spend their days steeped in such numbers. A number most likely to do little more than bias a response in this case, and it seems to, though it is hard to know precisely why.
Even worse is when those numbers are used totally out of context, as in Peterson’s argument above. Peterson’s description above is actually even worse than the methods description provided at Ed Next (Interestingly, Peterson also adds over $600 per pupil to the average spending figure, and then rounds it up to $13,000 by the end of his op-ed, compared to the information in the paragraph below from Ed Next):
A segment of those surveyed were asked the same question except that they were first told the level of per-pupil expenditure in their community, which averaged $12,300 for the respondents in our sample. For every subgroup considered, this single piece of information dampened public enthusiasm for increased spending. Support for more spending fell from 59 percent to 46 percent of those surveyed. Among the well-to-do, the level of support dropped dramatically, from 52 percent to 36 percent. Among teachers, support for expenditure increases fell even more sharply—from 71 percent to 53 percent (see Figure 7).
Surely, it would be completely absurd to ask (as implied by Peterson’s op ed) the average person in Tennessee if their schools should spend more, after telling that person what the average district spends nationally – implying to the respondent that the figure represents Tennessee spending (as seemingly implied by Peterson’s Op-Ed, and as in the online survey at Ed Next). It is only marginally more useful, however to ask the average respondent in Tennessee whether they should spend more or less, given a completely out of context representation of their local spending per pupil.
Here’s how the 2008-09 actual national mean per pupil spending compares to the distribution of per pupil spending across Tennessee districts:
Now, it might be interesting to show the average voter respondent in Tennessee this graph and then ask him/her whether they think more should be spent in Tennessee? This graph provides some context. Context that is completely absent when informing a Tennessee respondent either of their own local district spending WITH NO OTHER CONTEXT AVAILABLE or of the national spending WITH NO OTHER CONTEXT AVAILABLE.
Put very simply, a per pupil spending figure out of context is meaningless. $17,000 I say! $17,000… an abomination I say. It’s a huge number! Why would we ever consider spending more than that per pupil in New York City? Well, what if it just happened to turn out that in the same year, that $17,000 per pupil was lower, on average, than most of the surrounding districts with much less needy student populations? What if that $17,000 was only approximately 50% of what was being spent in private independent schools operating within the city? It doesn’t sound so big any more does it? How would survey respondents in New York City change their answer if this information was provided?
The Ed Next survey, while fun to ponder each year, isn’t particularly helpful for really understanding voter’s preferences or awareness regarding spending on public schools or perceived quality.
Actual data on local budget votes, including those involving tax increases (increasing the more voter-distasteful local property tax) tend to be a much more useful barometer and even in the worst of economic times, local voter support – especially where voters have the financial capacity to provide that support – remains overwhelmingly positive (Example NY State Data & previous NJ Blog Post [over 70% pass rate in wealthy districts in worst year]). Matt Di Carlo provides further discussion of this topic here, explaining the general voter preferences. It is also worth noting that even the most poorly constructed and phrased polls do not find significant shares (if any) responding that less should be spent. Yet that is precisely the argument advanced by many pundits in response to these surveys.