When informed, attitudes toward public school spending change

One of the problems with forming public policy is the lack of information possessed by the general public, and, sometimes, even by elected officials. A recent research report published by the Hoover Institution titled Educating the Public measures the problem.

Importantly, this report shows the changes in people’s attitudes after they receive correct information.

I’ve experienced the lack of information about basic facts myself. Last year a colleague and I conducted some “man-on-the-street” interviews during the bond issue campaign. Very few people knew how much the Wichita school district spent. Most estimated levels of spending less than half of actual spending.

It’s not just the public. Elected officials like Rep. Melody McCray-Miller and Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan have disputed the total amount of spending by the Wichita school district when presented with the actual figures.

The following excerpt from the press release gives more information.

When Provided with Accurate Information, Public Support for Increased Spending on Schools and Teacher Salaries Declines, Researchers Find

Cambridge — The better informed people are, the more likely they are to oppose increased school spending. That is a key finding in a newly released survey, “Educating the Public,” conducted by Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University. The survey is posted on the Education Next website: www.educationnext.org. (The direct link to the study is Educating the Public.)

Survey results indicate that if the public is given accurate information about what is currently being spent on public schools, their support for increased spending and their confidence that more spending will improve student learning both decline. Education researchers William G. Howell of the University of Chicago and Martin R. West of Brown University also found that knowing how much the average teacher earns lowers support among the general public for salary increases.

To understand how public opinions shift, Howell and West embedded a series of experiments within the Education Next/PEPG survey by dividing respondents into randomly chosen groups: some were simply asked their opinion about school spending and teacher salaries, while others were first provided with accurate information about each of these issues.

The average per-pupil spending estimate from respondents to the 2008 Education Next/PEPG survey was $4,231, and the median response was just $2,000; but for these respondents, local average spending per pupil at the time exceeded $10,000. When told how much the local schools were spending, support for increased spending dropped by 10 percentage points, from 61 percent to a bare majority of 51 percent.

Howell and West find that these differences in opinion based on exposure to key information are consistent across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, views about the local public schools, and political ideologies.

“It’s clear that the American public is quite willing to update its views in light of new information about public schools,” Howell and West said.

Interestingly, note Howell and West, differences also appear among teachers, whom one might believe already have deeply entrenched and well-informed views about public education. Whereas 35 percent of teachers not specifically informed of spending levels claimed that spending should “greatly increase,” only 22 percent of those who were told the amount of money spent to educate a child in their district thought so. Additionally, 29 percent of uninformed teachers expressed strong confidence that increased spending would boost student learning. When exposed to the current spending in their district, however, that confidence dropped by 9 percent.

As with per-pupil expenditures, the public significantly underestimates how much their states pay public school teachers. On average, Education Next/PEPG survey respondents underestimated average teacher salaries in their state by more than $14,000, nearly one-third of the actual average salaries of $47,000.

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