Cost-cutting is all the rage in education policy. This makes a lot of sense during a recession (the next few years will be brutal), and even during good times we all want money to be well-spent. But much of the discussion on this topic is less about weathering the storm than about a long-term effort to stop the growth of spending on public education. The underlying assumption, hardly unique to education policy, is that people are tired of increasing school costs, and want to start cutting back.
So, I wanted to take a quick look at what Americans think of education spending, now and over time, using data from the General Social Survey (1972-2008), a nationally representative sample of U.S. opinions and other characteristics (run by the National Opinion Research Center). The question queries whether respondents believe the U.S. is spending too little, too much, or about the right amount on improving the nation’s education system (note the question’s use of “improving,” which likely influences responses to some degree). Also keep in mind that these are pre-recession data.
The 2008 data in the table below (non-missing sample size is 993) show that there’s actually a lot of agreement about education spending levels: Almost 3 in 4 Americans (71 percent) believe that we should spend more on improving education, while only about 1 in 20 feels that expenditures are too high.
Have Americans started feeling less friendly towards spending to improve education over time? No. In the early 1970s, opinion was more mixed. But, since then, with a couple of minor blips, support for increasing educational investment has been either growing or stable. The graph below shows the percentage of Americans subscribing to each of the three possible responses to education spending levels (too much, too little, and about right) between 1972 and 2008 (total sample size across all years is 29,276).
During the early 1970s, roughly half of Americans felt that education spending was too low; about 40 percent believed that it was about right. Over the past three decades, the support for more spending has grown markedly, with especially sharp increases during the late 1970s through the 1980s. Interestingly, support for more spending actually increased during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, but dropped a bit during the downturn in the early 1990s. Overall, the percent of Americans who think we spend too much hasn’t changed very much at all – a very small but steady minority.
These data provide a clear picture - the majority of Americans want to invest more to improve in our educational institutions, and only 1 in 20 supports a spending cut. This does not mean, of course, that there is an accompanying consensus on where this money should come from (federal, state, local), or on how this money is spent; these are contentious issues. But there seems to be general agreement that a good education for everyone benefits everyone, both economically and socially. Most people are not only willing to pay for it, but to pay more for it.
Given this fact, it should be noted that long-term measures to reduce education spending are supported by only a tiny fraction of the American public. Of course, public opposition never automatically means something is wrong, while attention to spending wisely is always a good thing. But, when we’re thinking long term, let’s keep in mind that most Americans are still willing to invest more to improve our public education system.