The schools???and the deficits???we deserve


cake photo

Have your cake and eat it too 
(Photo by Matt Gibson 19)

The latest Education
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.

Many people complain that our schools aren’t
responsive to public demands, but the opposite seems true.


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

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.

This piece originally
on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.