Schooling in America Series: K–12 Education Funding

Nothing quite garnered the national stage this year like the “Red for Ed” movement and respective teacher walkouts in states like Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma, to name just a few. Prompted by stagnant salaries and, in some instances, threats to benefits, teachers took to statehouses demanding increased funding for education.

The movement struck a nerve, both within states and nationally through large media outlets. Calls to raise taxes for teacher salaries rang out in some states and took effect in others. Legislators who were seen as less-than-friendly to teachers were voted out of office. Media used state-to-state, as well as year-to-year, comparisons to indicate a lack of public funding of public schools. And who could forget the iconic Time magazine covers of teachers struggling to make ends meet? 

In this series, we’re incorporating other surveys, as well as events that have made news in the past year, to add context to our 2018 Schooling in America Survey. Through the lens of teacher walkouts and their quest for higher pay, the perception is that public schools are woefully underfunded. But what does the public actually think about how K–12 education is funded? That’s the focus of today’s post in our Schooling in America Series.

A Caveat

It’s important to differentiate between a local or even state context and what the public thinks at a national level. Stories like this one detailing budget cuts to a New York City school experiencing budget cuts strike a real, painful tone for individual students and scenarios. And a few states, including some of those that experienced teacher strikes, have experienced funding decreases the past 10 years or so when adjusted for inflation.

It’s also important, though, to distinguish how much we fund K–12 funding as a whole from resource allocation at individual schools. The data we present in this post focus on how much we fund K–12, not how those who run our education systems spend those funds. If you’d like more information about how education decision makers spend K–12 dollars, Dr. Ben Scafidi’s Staffing Surge reports are a great place to get started.

Now on to the survey results.

Does the American Public Even Know What We Spend on K–12 Education?

The public does not know how much is spent on K–12 education on an average per-student basis.

More than three-fourths (78%) substantially underestimate the per-student funding by at least $1,500, when using a cautious estimate of $11,454 in 2014–15 current expenditures. That’s an underestimation worth more than the average funding of Arizona’s “Switcher” Tax-Credit Scholarship Program.

More than half (55%) underestimate per-student spending by about $6,500 or less. To put just how far apart those figures are in perspective, this underestimation of public per-pupil spending is worth more than 44 private school choice programs’ average funding level, based on EdChoice’s most recent data. If what the average American thought we spent on K–12 education was actually true, the United States could fund both a public school student and a private school choice recipient at the same rate as what is currently spent.

Another annual survey attempts to gauge the public’s awareness of education spending. Education Next, in its 2018 poll, saw the general public give an average response of $8,644. EdNext’s survey used local district funding figures for each respondent to gauge school spending, which came out to an average of $12,903 per student. Shockingly, the public underestimated its local education spending by $4,259.

Does the Public Think We Spend Enough on K–12 Education?

The public, when asked without context whether we spend too much or too little on K–12 education, overwhelmingly think we should fund education more. Six in 10 of respondents in our survey (62%) said education funding is “too low.” Just 12 percent said education funding is “too high,” again with no additional context.

Other survey results back this sentiment up.

When provided with the average per-pupil spending amount, though, Americans’ views change.

When provided with real spending information, those who thought education spending is “too low” fell from a majority to a plurality of 43 percent, while those who believed it is at the right level grew to about a third (32%).

More people than not still think funding is too low, but the issue isn’t as black and white as the national sentiment would leave some to believe.

Education Next also provided respondents with actual spending information from their local school districts, as opposed to a national average, and about half (47%) say spending should increase. That poll detected a 7-point increase in those who thought spending should increase compared to last year, perhaps indicating a boost from this year’s teachers’ movement. PDK’s saw a majority (60%) of respondents supporting increased spending on students who need extra support.


Does the Public Think Teachers Are Paid Enough?

PDK, in its annual poll, found two-thirds of respondents said teachers are underpaid. That marked a new high watermark for the professional group. Only about one in 20 respondents (6%) said teacher salaries in their community are “too high.”

AP-NORC, as part of an April poll conducted just as teacher strikes were beginning to take shape across the country, found similar views toward teacher pay. More than three-fourth (78%) said public school teachers get paid “somewhat” or “far” too little. About one in seven (15%) thought teachers are paid “about the right amount.” Like PDK, just 5 percent thought teachers are paid too much.

And EdNext, in its 2018 Poll, saw half of Americans (49%) in support of higher teacher salaries when provided with information on the average figures in their state. That was a 13-point increase since last year, and the results were higher in the six states that experienced teacher strikes this year. The EdNext poll provides an interesting foil to our education funding questions, as it was the only survey of the three listed that provided information on salary spending to its respondents.

Putting It All Together

While it’s certainly intertwined with overall education spending, none of these findings cut at the disparity between how we fund our education and how education decision makers actually spend those funds.

The latest Staffing Surge report is a great primer for that disparity. So is Marty Lueken’s blog post about a recent PBS episode on teacher pension funding.

Education finance is a an incredibly complex field that the average person—and even many policymakers—have trouble understanding. So, it’s not surprising that media reports and popular sentiment point toward more funding for teachers and schools, but descriptive results and ballot measures for increased taxes to fund them aren’t always so bullish.

Next time on the Schooling in America Series, we’ll look at a topic that is often derided for draining funds from public schools, while at the same time garnering high levels of public support. That topic? School choice.

Other Posts in the Schooling in America Series

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know Our Teachers

Schooling in America Series: Getting To Know School Parents

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know the Public on Public Education

Schooling in America Series: The Public on School Choice