Educating the Public

William Howell and Martin West
Education Next
Summer 2009

This research piece uses data from the 2008 Education Next survey to evaluate how the public feels about school spending by dividing respondents according to those who were more or less informed about the topic. This distinctive survey method is part of what makes Howell's and West's analysis so intriguing. They split respondents randomly into two camps: those who were simply asked their opinion about school spending and teacher salaries without any additional information being provided to them, and those who were asked the same questions but also given accurate information about these matters. In short, the analysts found that when the public is given additional data about what is spent on public schools (generally far more than people thought), their support for increased spending and their confidence that more spending will improve student achievement both decline. Also, when given accurate information about how much the average teacher earns (also much more than most people thought), support for higher teacher salaries also declines (by roughly 14 percent). Respondents, in fact, underestimated average teacher salaries by more than $14,000. Howell and West also found tepid but constant support for charter schools: 40 percent were undecided about their support for charter schools even when told that charters cannot charge tuition or provide religious instruction. But when the charter data were sliced by political ideology--and additional information added--liberals were a bit more likely and conservatives a little less likely to support charters. The authors conclude that their results show "the design of charter schools appeal more to liberals" and "that as the public becomes more informed about these public schools, core support for them may shift from the right to the left of the political spectrum." We'll have to wait and see if this prediction pans out.  Learn more here.

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