Advancing a Free Society

Do We Really Need to Spend More on Schools?

Friday, August 5, 2011

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.

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(photo credit: Andy Callahan)