In its 2016 budget, the Obama administration has proposed a new billion-dollar federal program, Teaching for Tomorrow, which requests an additional $1 billion in federal funding for services to children from low-income families. It also calls for more money for English language acquisition programs, civil rights enforcement, and special education services. Reporters nonetheless have pronounced the budget “dead on arrival,” as Congress is reluctant to increase spending at a time when the country is running a large fiscal deficit. Consistent with these reports, the House of Representatives has passed a budget resolution that calls for a more than 8 percent cut in federal spending. Similar battles over education spending rage in state capitals across the country.
In all the controversy certain basic facts are generally overlooked. How much do we currently spend per pupil? What do we pay our average teacher? And what does the public think about these matters?
To get the answers to these questions we surveyed a nationally representative cross section of both teachers and the public as a whole as part of our ninth annual Education Next poll, which was administered in May and June of this year. We got the basic facts about school expenditures and teachers’ salaries from the U. S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which provides information on every school district in the country.
In the school districts where our respondents lived, the expenditures per pupil came to $12,440 per pupil in 2012, the last year for which information is available. But when we asked respondents to estimate per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guessed, on average, just $6,307, little more than half actual spending levels. In other words, the public is badly misinformed, very probably because the mainstream media does such a poor job of telling people how much money is actually being spent on their schools.
When people actually find out the truth about public expenditure, they change their views on whether still more money is needed. We found this out by informing half of our respondents (randomly selected) the amount actually being spent in their local school district before asking them the following question: “Do you think that government funding for public schools in your district should increase, decrease, or stay about the same?” The other half of the respondents were not told current expenditure levels in their local district.
Among the uninformed group, 58 percent favor increases in spending. But support drops to 42 percent among those who have been told the actual level of expenditures.
We also discovered that people are a lot less likely to support higher pay for teachers once they find out current salary levels. According to NCES, teacher salaries, excluding pension, medical and other benefits, in the states where our respondents live come to $57,058, on average. But the public estimate of teacher salaries in their state comes to just $38,294, about two-thirds of the actual salary level that the average teacher is paid. In other words, people seriously underestimate how well teachers are being paid.
Lacking accurate information, a majority of the public thinks teachers should be paid more. Once again dividing our sample into groups (randomly selected), we find that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Americans left uninformed about teacher salaries think a boost in teacher salaries is needed. But backing for a boost in salaries falls to 45 percent among those who are told how much teachers are currently paid.
A third group (also randomly selected) is told how much teachers are currently being paid in their state and then is asked “Do you think taxes to fund public school teacher salaries should increase, decrease or stay about the same?” Among this group only about a third (32 percent) think a hike in teacher pay is needed.
In sum, the majority for spending more on schools and paying higher salaries to teachers evaporates when information on current salaries and expenditures is provided. In fact only a third of the public thinks salaries should be upped, once they are told accurate, information about current levels and when they are reminded they need to pay taxes to fund a salary increase.
• Paul E. Peterson is professor of government and director of the Harvard Program on Education Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.