The schools--and the deficits--we deserve

The latest Education Next poll results are packed-full of interesting findings on topics ranging from choice to merit pay, from NCLB to tenure reform. But particularly timely, in this era of fiscal austerity, are new insights about the public's views on school budgets. And guess what: On education, like everything else, Americans don't want to make tough choices. They want to keep taxes low while boosting school spending. Sound familiar?

Let's start with taxes. Question 25a asked: ?Do you think that local taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?? Sixty-five percent of the public wanted taxes to remain steady or drop. The numbers were a little lower for African Americans, Hispanics, and parents, but not by much. (Half of teachers even expressed this view.) Interestingly, even more people (73 percent of the public) opposed raising local taxes, even if they were to be targeted to local (instead of national) schools.

OK, Americans don't want higher taxes. So they must want school spending to remain flat, right? Wrong. Question 3b queried: ?Do you think that government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?? Here, 60 percent of the public wanted increased spending on their schools. (Not surprisingly, the numbers were even higher for teachers, parents, and minorities.) Granted, that sentiment softened significantly when respondents were told how much their local districts actually spend?it kicked down to 46 percent for the public as a whole.

Still, as we see with similar surveys on taxes and spending writ large, the public wants expensive services and low taxes. (Oh, and they abhor deficits.) The math doesn't add up.

And on what does the public want these phantom extra dollars to be spent? Not higher teacher salaries; once told that the average teacher makes close to $55,000, only 43 percent of the public supports boosting pay.

No, Americans want exactly what they've been getting for fifty years: smaller class sizes. In the only ?forced choice? question on the survey, respondents were asked (in question 12): ?Reducing average class sizes by 3 students would cost roughly the same amount as increasing teacher salaries by $10,000. Which do you think is the best use of funds for schools across the country, increasing teacher salaries by $10,000 or reducing class size by 3 students??

Respondents clearly struggled with this one, with 29 percent expressing no opinion either way. But by a ratio of 44 percent to 28 percent, those with a view picked class-size reduction over higher pay.

Many people complain that our schools aren't responsive to public demands, but the opposite seems true. The public wants small classes and is less concerned about paying teachers well; that's exactly the system we've got. And, I suppose, the system we deserve.

?Mike Petrilli

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