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Kansans still uninformed on school spending

As in the past, a survey finds Kansans are uninformed or misinformed on the level of school spending, and also on the direction of its change.

This month Kansas Policy Institute produced a survey asking registered voters in Kansas questions on the topic of school spending. The first two questions measured the level of knowledge of Kansas school spending.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 1 asked: “How much state funding do you think Kansas school districts currently receive per pupil each year from JUST the state of Kansas?” As can be seen in the nearby table and chart, the most frequent response was less than $4,000 per year. 63 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought funding from the state was less than $5,000 per year.

The correct answer is that for the most recent school year (2013 — 2014) Kansas state funding per student was $7,088. This is estimated to rise to $8,604 for the current school year.

(The source of data for past school years is Kansas State Department of Education. Estimates for the current school year were obtained from Dale Dennis, who is Deputy Commissioner, Fiscal and Administrative Services.)

In the last school year base state aid per pupil was $3,838. How, then, does the state spend $7,088 per pupil? The answer is that various weightings are applied for things like bilingual education and at-risk pupils.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 2 asked about funding from all sources: “How much funding per pupil do you think Kansas school districts currently receive from ALL taxpayer sources per year, including State, Federal and Local taxpayers? The most common answer was less than $7,000. Two-thirds answered less than $10,000.

The correct answer is per-pupil spending from all sources for the 2013 — 2014 school year was $12,960. The estimate for the current school year is $13,268.

From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
From Kansas Policy Institute public opinion survey, November 2014.
Question 3 asked about the change in school funding: “Over the last 4 years, how much do you think total per-pupil funding has changed?” 65 percent — nearly two-thirds — thought spending had fallen over this period. Only 14 percent thought spending had risen, and only seven percent by more than five percent. That last category holds the correct answer, which is 8.02 percent.

The findings of these three questions, which are that people are generally uninformed as to the level of school spending, are not able produce estimates that are in the same ballpark of actual values, and are wrong on the direction of change of spending, are not surprising. Past versions of similar surveys in Kansas have produced similar results. It’s not just a Kansas problem, as similar findings are found across the nation.

Commenting on the survey, KPI president Dave Trabert remarked:

It is impossible for citizens to develop informed opinions on education funding and state budget issues without accurate information. We continue to see that citizens who are accurately informed on K-12 funding have significantly different opinions than those who believe school funding is much lower than reality.” The number of Kansans who can correctly answer this question remains disturbingly low, but knowing how frequently funding is misrepresented by education officials and special interests, it’s not surprising. Instead of trying to low-ball school funding to justify increased aid, the focus should be on improving outcomes.

Kansans are providing record funding levels that exceed adjustments for enrollment and inflation over the last ten years, but outcomes on independent national assessments are relatively unchanged. It will always cost a lot of money to provide public education but the data shows that it’s how the money is spent that matters — not how much. “Just spend more” is about funding institutions. The focus needs to shift to getting more of the record-setting funding into classrooms where it will best help students.

Legislators and citizens cannot make good decisions about the challenges facing the state without good information. This survey confirms what we’ve known previously: Kansans are being misinformed and that cannot lead to good decision making. We encourage legislators and others to honestly examine facts without political bias. No finger pointing … no attempts to score political points … and no shading the facts … just civil discussion of the issues and facts.

A press release announcing the survey is New Survey: Kansans Remain Misinformed Regarding K-12 Finance. The results of the survey from SurveyUSA are here.

The problem with government spending

Of interest is that when people make major — or even minor — purchases, many will expend considerable effort researching the possibilities. Spending their own money, automobile purchasers want to get a good deal on a car that meets their preferences. That’s human nature.

But every two years, taxpayers spend on each student the amount that will buy a nice new car. In four years, taxpayers spend enough on each student to buy a new luxury car. The average taxpayer doesn’t pay that much tax for schools. But collectively, we all do.

The lack of knowledge of government spending reminds me of a passage from Free to Choose: A Personal Statement, written by Rose and Milton Friedman. It explains why government spending is wasteful, how it leads to corruption, how it often does not benefit the people it was intended, and how the pressure for more spending is always present. Spending on public schools falls in either category III — spending someone else’s money on yourself (or your children) — or category IV — spending someone else’s money on someone else. It’s no wonder it hasn’t worked very well.

Here’s a passage from Free to Choose.

A simple classification of spending shows why that process leads to undesirable results. When you spend, you may spend your own money or someone else’s; and you may spend for the benefit of yourself or someone else. Combining these two pairs of alternatives gives four possibilities summarized in the following simple table:

friedman-spending-categories-2013-07

Category I in the table refers to your spending your own money on yourself. You shop in a supermarket, for example. You clearly have a strong incentive both to economize and to get as much value as you can for each dollar you do spend.

Category II refers to your spending your own money on someone else. You shop for Christmas or birthday presents. You have the same incentive to economize as in Category I but not the same incentive to get full value for your money, at least as judged by the tastes of the recipient. You will, of course, want to get something the recipient will like — provided that it also makes the right impression and does not take too much time and effort. (If, indeed, your main objective were to enable the recipient to get as much value as possible per dollar, you would give him cash, converting your Category II spending to Category I spending by him.)

Category III refers to your spending someone else’s money on yourself — lunching on an expense account, for instance. You have no strong incentive to keep down the cost of the lunch, but you do have a strong incentive to get your money’s worth.

Category IV refers to your spending someone else’s money on still another person. You are paying for someone else’s lunch out of an expense account. You have little incentive either to economize or to try to get your guest the lunch that he will value most highly. However, if you are having lunch with him, so that the lunch is a mixture of Category III and Category IV, you do have a strong incentive to satisfy your own tastes at the sacrifice of his, if necessary.

All welfare programs fall into either Category III — for example, Social Security which involves cash payments that the recipient is free to spend as he may wish; or Category IV — for example, public housing; except that even Category IV programs share one feature of Category III, namely, that the bureaucrats administering the program partake of the lunch; and all Category III programs have bureaucrats among their recipients.

In our opinion these characteristics of welfare spending are the main source of their defects.

Legislators vote to spend someone else’s money. The voters who elect the legislators are in one sense voting to spend their own money on themselves, but not in the direct sense of Category I spending. The connection between the taxes any individual pays and the spending he votes for is exceedingly loose. In practice, voters, like legislators, are inclined to regard someone else as paying for the programs the legislator votes for directly and the voter votes for indirectly. Bureaucrats who administer the programs are also spending someone else’s money. Little wonder that the amount spent explodes.

The bureaucrats spend someone else’s money on someone else. Only human kindness, not the much stronger and more dependable spur of self-interest, assures that they will spend the money in the way most beneficial to the recipients. Hence the wastefulness and ineffectiveness of the spending.

But that is not all. The lure of getting someone else’s money is strong. Many, including the bureaucrats administering the programs, will try to get it for themselves rather than have it go to someone else. The temptation to engage in corruption, to cheat, is strong and will not always be resisted or frustrated. People who resist the temptation to cheat will use legitimate means to direct the money to themselves. They will lobby for legislation favorable to themselves, for rules from which they can benefit. The bureaucrats administering the programs will press for better pay and perquisites for themselves — an outcome that larger programs will facilitate.

The attempt by people to divert government expenditures to themselves has two consequences that may not be obvious. First, it explains why so many programs tend to benefit middle- and upper-income groups rather than the poor for whom they are supposedly intended. The poor tend to lack not only the skills valued in the market, but also the skills required to be successful in the political scramble for funds. Indeed, their disadvantage in the political market is likely to be greater than in the economic. Once well-meaning reformers who may have helped to get a welfare measure enacted have gone on to their next reform, the poor are left to fend for themselves and they will almost always he overpowered by the groups that have already demonstrated a greater capacity to take advantage of available opportunities.

The second consequence is that the net gain to the recipients of the transfer will be less than the total amount transferred. If $100 of somebody else’s money is up for grabs, it pays to spend up to $100 of your own money to get it. The costs incurred to lobby legislators and regulatory authorities, for contributions to political campaigns, and for myriad other items are a pure waste — harming the taxpayer who pays and benefiting no one. They must be subtracted from the gross transfer to get the net gain — and may, of course, at times exceed the gross transfer, leaving a net loss, not gain.

These consequences of subsidy seeking also help to explain the pressure for more and more spending, more and more programs. The initial measures fail to achieve the objectives of the well-meaning reformers who sponsored them. They conclude that not enough has been done and seek additional programs. They gain as allies both people who envision careers as bureaucrats administering the programs and people who believe that they can tap the money to be spent.

Category IV spending tends also to corrupt the people involved. All such programs put some people in a position to decide what is good for other people. The effect is to instill in the one group a feeling of almost God-like power; in the other, a feeling of childlike dependence. The capacity of the beneficiaries for independence, for making their own decisions, atrophies through disuse. In addition to the waste of money, in addition to the failure to achieve the intended objectives, the end result is to rot the moral fabric that holds a decent society together.

Another by-product of Category III or IV spending has the same effect. Voluntary gifts aside, you can spend someone else’s money only by taking it away as government does. The use of force is therefore at the very heart of the welfare state — a bad means that tends to corrupt the good ends. That is also the reason why the welfare state threatens our freedom so seriously.

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