Survey Says: K–12 Funding Should Follow Kids Where They Learn

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Schooling in America (SIA) survey, and we asked some questions about school funding that we’ve never asked before.

Our questions touch upon several areas, such as how people want to fund a system of K–12 education, teacher pay, class size, where they would like to see dollars directed, where they find information about education spending, and if they think education dollars are used effectively.

Here’s what we learned.

Parents want educational choice for all children.

Let’s kick this post off with the most gripping finding. We asked parents of K–12 age children the following question:

Currently, in most states, the funding of public schools is based, in part, on the needs of students served as well as various other factors (such as perceived resource/staffing needs). One way states could fund K–12 education is to collect both state and local funds at the state level and, then, distribute those funds to families based on student need to use at the educational setting of their choosing. The setting could be a district school, public charter school, private religious or nonreligious school, home school, or other approved education providers. In general, do you favor or oppose your state having a unified system of K–12 funding where dollars follow students to the educational setting of their family’s choosing?

Of school parents, 71 percent indicated they strongly or somewhat favor a system of funding where funding is based on student need and education dollars follow the student to the school of their choosing. Just 15 percent strongly or somewhat oppose this.

A plurality of parents indicate support in nearly every subcategory, but there are some notable differences between some demographics. For instance, parents with children in private and charter schools were significantly more likely to indicate support (87% and 76%, respectively) than parents with children in traditional public schools (67%) and homeschool (69%).

Urban (76%) and suburban (72%) parents were also more likely to support a backpack funding model compared to parents in rural communities (62%).

We also observe significantly higher rates of support among younger parents than older parents. Seventy-seven percent of Millennial parents indicated support compared to 66 percent of Gen X parents.

Parents who identify as Democrat (77%) were also more likely to support a unified system of funding than parents who identify as Republican (70%) or Independent (66%).

Where do parents learn about school spending?

We also asked various questions related to school finance and how states fund public schools. We wanted to learn where parents get their information when it comes to school spending. Twenty percent of parents get their information from official sites such as school, district or government websites. Parents were more likely to say they received school finance information from generic online sources, such as Google searches. Twenty-five percent get this information from social media, word of mouth, family, friends or other sources not listed.

Do parents think the education system spends K–12 dollars effectively?

There are a lots of debates around school funding. Does money matter? Such debates ultimately center on how effectively public officials use taxpayer money. We asked parents if they think public K–12 education dollars are spent effectively.
Parents are fairly split, with 28 percent indicating they think dollars are spent effectively and 26 percent who think they are not used effectively. Digging into the data, however, we see interesting differences among subgroups. For example, 52 percent of private school parents think public education dollars are used effectively while 21 percent of district school parents and 35 percent of charter school parents think public K–12 spending is effective.

Suburban (19%) and rural (21%) parents are significantly less likely to think spending is effective compared to urban parents (42%).

Parents with annual income more than $80K (41%) are almost twice as likely to think spending is effective than parents with annual income below $40K (24%).

Parents who identify as Democrat (43%) are also twice as likely than parents who identify Republican (21%) and Independent (20%) to think that public education spending is effective.

Tradeoffs: Do parents prefer small class sizes or higher teacher salaries?

Many folks argue that smaller classes benefit students. Many parents seem to care a lot about class size, as evidenced by this year’s SIA survey. Roughly one in four parents with children not enrolled in traditional public schools listed class size in the top three factors that influenced their enrollment decisions. Of course, schools that want to create smaller classes will have to hire more teachers. To hire more staff, teachers often trade off salary (they get smaller raises year to year or may even see real salary decline). We wanted to learn to what extent parents are willing to make this tradeoff.

Overall, parents are split, where 47 percent indicated they prefer smaller classes with lower-paid teachers, while 53 percent of parents prefer higher teacher salaries with larger classes for their children.

Parents with children in private schools (65%) and charter schools (62%) were significantly more likely to prefer larger classes with higher teacher salaries than district school parents (46%). Black parents (66%), Hispanic parents (56%), and Urban parents (64%) also tend to prefer larger classes and higher teacher salaries. Though the data can’t tell us why parents have these preferences, these results may reflect a desire for schools to use higher salaries as a way to attract better quality teachers.

Market Pay vs. Salary Schedules: What do parents think about teacher pay?

Wages for public school teachers are typically set according to a salary schedule based on tenure and credentials (usually a Master’s Degree or Doctorate). Some education reformers advocate that teacher pay should be based more on merit and demand. For instance, if a school has a shortage of math or special education teachers, those teachers should be paid more.

We asked parents if they think teacher pay should be based on traditional step-column schedules or other factors. Private school parents (57%), homeschool parents (57%), and parents in rural communities (58%) tend to favor pay schedules. Charter school parents (54%) and Hispanic parents (58%) tend to favor pay based on market factors.

Funding Gaps: Do people think they’re real?

Prior to the 1970s, school funding was highly inequitable between wealthy and poor districts because most revenue was generated locally via property tax. Beginning in the early ’70s, decades of school finance reform and litigation has largely equalized the amount of resources that wealthy and poorer districts receive. Today, low-income students in most states are about as well-funded as districts where non-low-income students attend.

Parents, however, indicate in a split sample experiment that they believe that public K–12 funding favors wealthy districts. We asked about half of the parents:

Would you say the following statement is true or false? In general, wealthy districts receive significantly more dollars per pupil than poor districts.

More than two-thirds of parents think this statement is true and just 16 percent believe the statement is false, even though most states have funding formulas that require state funds to make up funding gaps.
Although funding gaps have closed over decades of school finance litigation, the fact that funding for wealthy and poor districts is largely on equal footing may be worrisome to anyone who believes that funding should be progressive so students with greater disadvantages have access to more resources. We also asked the rest of the parents:

Would you say the following statement is true or false? In general, poor districts receive significantly more dollars per pupil than wealthy districts.

Almost two-thirds think this statement is false, suggesting that they may not believe that K–12 funding is progressive. Just over one-third indicate that funding is progressive.

How do parents want their districts to use the influx of federal stimulus funds?

School districts across the nation have an influx of additional resources from the federal government thanks to covid stimulus funding. Of the $190 billion that states will receive from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, at least $172 billion will be directed to school districts. That’s about $3,500 per student in additional funding. We asked parents how they would like their school districts to prioritize this funding. Respondents ranked their top three items.

Roughly one-third of parent respondents indicated they would like to see districts use some of these funds for education for students with special needs, to provide mental health services for students and staff, provide educational technologies directly to students, and to assist homeless students. Almost one in four parents also included resource to improve preparedness/crisis-response efforts and funding for career and technical education in their top three. These results seem to suggest that learning loss from the aftermath of COVID and at-risk student populations are chief concerns for parents.

Why It All Matters

It is essential for schools and policymakers to understand parents’ perspectives and desires when it comes to their children’s education, but it also is important to recognize who those parents are. For most of the new fiscal-related questions included in the 2022 SIA, factors like race, location, and economic status appear to impact how parents approach important questions about how their schools operate. See the rest of the interactive charts and tables at

Full crosstabs are available upon request by emailing