On Perceptions and Drunken Sailors

Last week my colleague Kevin Carey explained why the latest poll (pdf) purporting to show American’s nearly unlimited appetite for more education spending has some problems. Like Kevin, I’m all for more federal spending on K-12 schools and think the fiscal priorities of the current administration are outrageous. But this poll (and other similar ones) do not seriously help move the needle on that issue. In fact, we have an ongoing natural experiment about education spending and it contradicts these polls. Most of the increase in education spending is driven by essentially built-in escalators: State funding formulas, special education, teacher salaries and so forth. In the context of a $450 billion industry, even the billions put into No Child Left Behind in the first few years after it was passed or the amounts being argued over now are pretty small potatoes and boil down to a few hundred dollars per student (and just a bit more if you include special ed). We’re not going to revolutionize American education on that. Anyway, when voters are given the chance to increase spending directly at the state and local level while they’re certainly not uniformly opposed to spending increases, the record is very mixed and indicates reluctance. Besides, demographic changes mean more attention to productivity and better use of existing resources going forward because we can’t spend our way out of today’s problems even if we wanted to. That’s the political and substantive reality today and why spending and real reform, not just spending has to be the strategy going forward.

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