Is the Public Confused about School Financing?

After last week’s release of Education Next’s 2016 survey of education opinion (see Jason Bedrick’s and Neal McCluskey’s responses), Phi Delta Kappa yesterday released its own poll (see Neal’s take on that here). Once again, the poll sheds light on the public’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of school financing.

In an open-ended question, Americans for the 15th consecutive year designated “lack of money/financial support” the biggest problem facing public schools. Perhaps as a result, most Americans—53% in support to 45% opposed—favored increasing property taxes to boost school funding. However, there was broad skepticism (47% of respondents) that increases would spur quality improvements. What explains this apparent inconsistency?

It turns out support for increased property taxes is correlated with how respondents ranked local public schools. Those that viewed their public schools more favorably were more likely to support property tax hikes and be confident that increased funding would improve schools. Conversely, those that rated local schools lower were more resistant to hikes and skeptical that increased funding would result in improvements. While two-thirds of those that gave their local schools an A grade were confident that increased funding would help, only 17% of those that gave their schools an F agreed.

In what PDK calls its most “lopsided” result, Americans overwhelmingly preferred keeping a failing school open to closure, 84% to 14%, but 62% favored replacing teachers and administrators to increasing funding in the turnaround. Americans, it seems, agree that increased funding will not improve underperforming schools. Furthermore, 26% of those that gave their schools a failing grade thought school closure was the more appropriate response, compared to only 13% of the general public.

Listing funding as a problem also does not necessarily result in support for increased property taxes. In the latest poll, 19% of respondents cited school funding as the biggest problem, down from a record high of 36% in 2010 and 2011, the peak of the recession years. But the Education Next poll demonstrates that support for property tax hikes declined dramatically during those years.

Another reason so many respondents cited “lack of funding” as a major problem? The open-ended nature of the question allowed up to three responses, increasing the likelihood that many respondents would include school funding as one of their answers. That only 19% of respondents included it seems low given that that majority of respondents favored property tax increases. Moreover, the EdNext pollsters theorize that support for increases in funding rises in election years, when this issue is most hotly debated, and it’s therefore unsurprising that it was seen as the biggest problem in public education.

An important caveat to these findings is that support for increased funding dramatically drops when an individual is informed of real spending. In the EdNext poll, uninformed respondents estimated average per-pupil spending at $7,020, a little more than half the actual average of $12,440. When uninformed respondents were asked if they favored an increase in school funding, 61% supported the idea; when a separate group of respondents was told the actual per-pupil expenditure, support dropped to 45%.

These results lead to a number of conclusions. First, support for increased schooling taxation comes disproportionately from the wealthy, already well-performing public schools, where parents are confident that spending is put to good use. The poll results shouldn’t be seen as supporting property tax hikes in communities with failing schools where the effectiveness of more funding is suspect. Second, because the public appears uncertain about funding as a tool to turn around schools, perhaps a better alternative is to give parents more control over their children’s education via school choice policies, as minority groups favor. Finally, these studies together reinforce the importance of a well-informed public. Support for spending increases drops for all groups—teachers, Republicans, Democrats, and the general public—when given accurate information.

Despite large numbers of respondents favoring property tax increases, the PDK poll demonstrates a broad skepticism of more funding for failing schools. And there is no powerful  link between spending and academic performance, making it heartening that the public appears intuitively aware of this.