School Reform

Changes in Support for School Reform

In retrospect it looks as if 2014, an election year that swept Republicans into power in Congress and many state capitals, propelled school reform to a high-water mark that has proven difficult to sustain. For three years in a row now, we have asked either identical or quite similar questions on several issues. On a surprising number of them, support for policy changes has slipped in 2015 from peaks attained in 2014, though sometimes the fall is to a level that remains above the one reached in 2013. None of the changes are large, and some of the shifts fall short of statistical significance, leaving it unclear as to whether a true change has taken place. But consider the overall pattern of responses across major parts of the school reform agenda (see Figure 4):

· Charter schools. Support for charter schools has dipped from a high of 54% in 2014 to 51% in 2015, the same level as in 2013. However, the percentage supporting charters remains twice that of the 27% expressing opposition.

· Tax credits for scholarships for low-income students. Support for a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contribute to private-school scholarships for low-income families has also fallen, to 55% from 60% in 2014. (This question was not asked in 2013.)

· Vouchers for low-income students. Backing for the use of “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools” has fallen steadily—from 41% to 37% between 2013 and 2014, with a further (though not statistically significant) drop to just 34% in 2015.

· Universal vouchers. Public enthusiasm for universal vouchers without regard to income has slipped from 50% in 2014 to 46% in 2015, just a bit higher than the 44% level reported in 2013. (However, these changes are not statistically significant and the comparison is not exact, as the question in 2015 for the first time included the word “all,” clearly presenting vouchers as a universal benefit for every family.)

· Merit pay for teachers. People are not fully embracing policy reforms affecting teachers. Between 2014 and 2015, public support for merit pay has slid from 57% to 51%, about the same as in 2013, when merit pay garnered support from 49% of the population. Even so, just 34% of the population opposes merit pay, with the remainder taking a neutral position.

·Tenure. Between 2014 and 2015, public opposition to teacher tenure has also slipped, from 57% to 51%, just above the 47% level attained in 2013. Nonetheless, current public support for teacher tenure is just 29%, a little more than half the size of the opposition.

One hesitates to read too much into shifts in opinion that are only modestly larger than what a statistical aberration might account for—and in some cases, not even that big. Perhaps the higher levels of support we observed in 2014 reflected temporary shocks to public opinion stemming from events such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recall election and the landmark Vergara v. California decision that struck down California’s teacher evaluation and tenure laws, both of which took place while our survey was in the field. But school reformers might take the 2015 findings as a red light on the dashboard, a warning that efforts to alter the public’s thinking on education policy may be faltering.

Expenditures and Salaries

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% cut in federal spending.

Missing from virtually all the media coverage of these developments are answers to a few basic questions: How much do we currently spend per pupil? How much does the federal government contribute to the total expenditure? And does the public think spending should be increased? To gauge people’s knowledge and views on these matters, we asked our respondents a series of questions concerning school spending.

Americans greatly underestimate the amount of money spent on schools. According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the school districts in which our survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when we ask respondents to estimate per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guess, on average, just $6,307, a little more than half actual spending levels.

Our survey found that people are often willing to alter their thinking when given additional information. Before asking our respondents if they thought spending in their districts should be increased, we told half of them what the current spending levels were. The other half were left uninformed. Among those not informed, 58% favor increases in spending. That support drops to 42% when people are told the actual level of expenditures (after having provided their own estimate).

Respondents who most seriously underestimate spending levels are the ones most likely to change their minds when told the facts. When those who underestimate school expenditures by $5,000 or less are told real spending levels, their support for increased spending drops by 12 percentage points. Among those who underestimate expenditures by more than $5,000, the downward opinion shift, upon being informed of real levels, is 20 percentage points. On the other hand, those who overestimate expenditures barely budge in their opinions when told their districts spend less than they thought.