Do Americans Think We Spend Too Much On Education?

Posted by on December 13, 2010

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). 

Attitudes towards the Level of U.S. Spending on Improving Education, 1972-2008 (General Social Survey)

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.


9 Comments posted so far

  • I think you are right that the American public “say” they want to invest, but their actions prove otherwise.

    It’s a classic conundrum–we all want it, but none of us are willing to see to it that we get it.

    Comment by TFT
    December 13, 2010 at 6:33 PM
  • TFT – I know exactly what you’re saying, but the fact remains that, during non-recession years, school budgets (in which property tax increases in many states are embedded) pass at rather high rates, as do tax levies and other dedicated measures. The recession has understandably tempered this willingness to some extent, but even this year, a majority of levies passed in hard-hit states like Minnesota and Ohio.

    Nevertheless, you’re obviously correct that there’s some disconnect between words and action, especially when people are asked to pay for education outside of their own districts.

    MD

    Comment by Matthew Di Carlo
    December 13, 2010 at 6:52 PM
  • This would be interesting if viewed in light of the fact that Americans have no idea what they’re talking about (they way underestimate the amount already spent on education). See http://educationnext.org/is-the-price-right/

    Comment by Stuart Buck
    December 17, 2010 at 12:43 PM
  • One of the survey’s findings:

    “How well informed is the public about these financial commitments? Not very. Among those asked without the prompt listing possible expenses, the median response was $2,000, or less than 20 percent of the true amount being spent in their districts. Over 90 percent of the public offered an amount less than the amount actually spent in their district, and more than 40 percent of the sample claimed that annual spending was $1,000 per pupil or less.”

    No wonder Americans support more spending, if they’re underestimating current spending by 80-90%!

    Comment by Stuart Buck
    December 17, 2010 at 12:44 PM
  • Stuart,

    I saw that too. But even among respondents who are told actual spending amounts in their districts, a majority still supports increased spending:
    http://educationnext.org/educating-the-public/

    Another recent poll (I think it was AP) asked whether Americans were willing to pay higher taxes for education. 42 percent responded in the affirmative (MoE: +/- 4 percent). Some people said that meant support was low, but I took away the opposite: in the middle of a massive recession, with anti-tax sentiment as it is, a near-majority of Americans would still pay higher taxes for education. That’s pretty amazing. There aren’t many issues that would elicit that response.

    Yes, Americans may not know much about how much we spent on education (though they certainly know their property taxes), and they may not realize that more money does not necessarily improve performance. But they still recognize the importance of education, and are willing to invest in it. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

    Comment by Matthew Di Carlo
    December 17, 2010 at 1:18 PM
  • [...] Survey, a well-respected national survey of attitudes and characteristics (I looked at this in a previous post, but that was before the 2010 data were available). The simple graph below presents the raw [...]

    March 14, 2011 at 7:57 PM
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    March 21, 2011 at 5:22 PM
  • If the American people knew just how the money was spent in education, the responses would be completely different. Like hiding all the food to feed teachers junk food when they come to meetings in a category called “workshop expenses”. This at a time when the state pays health care for the teachers and the cost is increasing more than 10% each year, and obesity is an issue. That schools are having to pay the medical bills for students whose healthcare should be paying, because “it is a barrier to learning”. To have full time employees paid with Federal money linked up one on one with students who sadly are so handicapped that they will never be a functioning part of society (we can only love these children)and stay with them all day (free daycare is really what this amounts to). $500 office chairs, IPADS for principals who have desktops and laptops. This list could go on and on. The money in education is spent under the umbrella of “it’s all for the children”. Well this school district finance office employee would say to the American people “ask how the money is being spent”. Teachers going to “workshops” in Mexico, China and other countries, when the economy is so bad. By the way, does Mexico have a better education system than the US that there is something to learn? The list goes on and on.

    Comment by sally
    May 4, 2011 at 3:26 PM
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    August 1, 2011 at 3:37 PM

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