Even as the president was signing the debt-limit bill designed to cut spending this week, he insisted on continuing "to keep making key investments in things like education." Don't be surprised if the president and his allies reiterate this call for more spending in the nation's schools, which they argue is necessary if our students are to remain competitive.
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.
The public is not altogether foolish about such matters. They know that schools are underperforming. When asked what percentage of ninth graders graduate from high school within four years, they accurately estimate, on average, that only 72% manage to do so. (That percentage is almost exactly what official government statistics report.) But the public is tempted to think that the way to fix the problem is to spend more.
So it makes good political sense for the president to call for more spending but never mention current expenditure levels, or the fact that more spending implies higher taxes. But ignoring reality also leads to bigger debts.
Mr. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and directs Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.