Voters Vastly Underestimate Education Spending, Grade Public Schools at C or Lower

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A new poll released by the Commonwealth Foundation shows Pennsylvania voters, much like those elsewhere, greatly underestimate how much they spend on education. Once they learn the true cost and the poor academic results, voters give public schools poor grades.

“This poll reveals that voters are largely misinformed about what the state spends on public schools and are stunned by the inadequate achievement levels their money is buying”

It is a national trend – people have a grave misconception of how much is spent on education and what they get for their money. Several studies gauging awareness and attitudes about public schools and spending have revealed discontent. Now we learn, nearly three-quarters of Pennsylvania voters underestimate the amount the state spends on education, according to a poll released by the Commonwealth Foundation. And, in a stinging rebuke to the status quo, 53 percent of those polled grade Pennsylvania’s public school system a D or F overall when informed of student achievement levels.

The findings are in line with those of other recent studies throughout the country that found half of those asked underestimated national education spending, according to a Friedman Foundation report. More than half of those polled in Michigan assumed spending had been cut when it had been increased, according to a Watchdog Wire poll, and 20% gave public schools an A or a B nationwide, according to a recent Education Next survey.

The Commonwealth Foundation survey, released August 26th and conducted by national polling firm The Tarrance Group, questioned 600 Pennsylvania registered voters on their knowledge of state education spending and performance levels.

“This poll reveals that voters are largely misinformed about what the state spends on public schools and are stunned by the inadequate achievement levels their money is buying,” commented Nathan Benefield, vice president of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation. “It’s also clear that the public favors alternatives to tax increases to fix the education system. When voters were informed of funding and achievement facts, support for boosting education funding by hiking taxes dropped significantly.”

Key poll results:

  • 73% underestimate state per-pupil spending

o The average estimate was 46% lower than the actual level of $14,620 (in 2012-13)

  • 82% underestimate the average public school teachers’ salary

o The average estimate was 26% below the actual average salary of $63,000

  • 66% were surprised when informed that Pennsylvania spends $2,900 more per student than the national average

The poll, designed to inform the debate over a new state education funding formula begun last week by the Basic Education Funding Commission, also gauged changes in perceptions after voters were informed of the facts.

After spending and performance facts were revealed:

  • 54% said they would not be personally willing to pay higher taxes to increase education funding
  • Support for increasing public school funding declined by 9%
  • 53% graded public schools a D or F grade when informed of Pennsylvania 8th graders’ test results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared to 20% before they were told statewide performance results.

o In Philadelphia, 51% of voters gave schools a D or an F before being told test results, increasing to 55% after. In other Southeastern PA counties, 18% of voters gave schools a D or an F before being told test results, increasing to 60% after.

Benefield continued: “At a time when skyrocketing school pension costs are driving property taxes ever higher, it’s clear that voters require a good return on their education investment. In the debate over school funding changes, it’s up to lawmakers to change the perceptions of more than half of voters who grade schools a D or F.

“To accomplish this, we need fundamental reforms beyond throwing more money at the problem—like addressing pension reform, ending rigid seniority rules, and expanding cost-saving school choice programs.”

The telephone poll of 600 registered "likely" voters who were part of a fully representative sample based on the latest voter registration figures within the state. It has a +/- 4.1% margin of error. Each interview lasted about eight minutes and was conducted between August 18- 20th.

Nathan Benefield is available for comment on the implications of these poll results. Please contact Cindy Hamill at (856) 607-4208 to schedule an interview.

Commonwealth Foundation at (856) 607-4208 or chd(at)commonwealthfoundation(dot)org.

The Commonwealth Foundation, founded in 1988, crafts free-market policies, convinces Pennsylvanians of their benefits, and counters attacks on liberty.

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