Thursday, June 12, 2008

What Do Americans Really Know About Education Spending?

Government spending on education has, without a doubt, increased over the past several decades. Unfortunately, the student achievement levels and graduation rates are not following the same upward slope. I have often wondered the reasoning behind the constant financial increases when there is yet to be evidence of the benefits. Education Next published an article, Is the Price Right? Probing American's knowledge of school spending

By William G. Howell and Martin R. West

This study examines the way people view America’s public education spending. The results are astonishing. 59 percent of those surveyed truly believe more spending on public schools in their districts will increase student achievement. However, while they may feel more spending is needed, most people highly under-estimate how much is already spent. The study asked the respondents to estimate per-pupil expenditures in their districts as well as teacher salaries in their states. The study used actual spending and salaries which were matched geographically to each district and state to compare their estimates with actual spending. The results showed that Americans vastly underestimate the amount spent in their district and on teacher salaries.

The average estimate on per-pupil spending was $4,231 when given no prompt and $5,262 when given the prompt (the prompt “Individual student costs go toward teacher and administrator salaries, building construction and maintenance, extracurricular activities, transportation, etc). The average actual spending through the country is around $10,400. The average guess for teacher salary was $33,054 while the actual national average is $47,424.

While the study did show differences in opinions based on gender, whether they had school age children, and those who own homes and pay property taxes; the number were still well below the real numbers. There are also differences with political party affiliation.

This leads me to believe not only are people convinced we need to spend more to see more because they have not looked into the research on the lack of correlation, but also because they are basing their opinions on inaccurate information. The study noted that those who support increases in spending on public education in their district were guessing per-pupil spending $6,000 less than it is. The same holds true for teacher salary. However, while those who were in favor of decreasing spending were still guessing below the real spending level, they were estimating closer to the actual numbers.

So, now we see Americans underestimate actual spending levels, but does this necessarily prove why many people agree with more spending?

The authors ask one important question: “does the public's understanding of school finance shape their policy preferences, or do the public’s policy preferences shape their understanding of school finance?” This is something that needs answers to get to a solution.

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