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A WA L L S T R E E T J O U R N A L O P - E D

Do We Really Need to Spend More on Schools? wall street journalopinion

by Paul E. Peterson

August 5, 2011 Even as the president was signing the debt-limit bill designed to cut spending this week, he insisted on continuing to keep making key investments in things like education. Dont be surprised if the president and his allies reiterate this call for more spending in the nations schools, which they argue is necessary if our students are to remain competitive. At first glance, the public seems to agree with this position. In a survey released this week by Education Next, an education research journal, my colleagues and I reported that 65% of the public wants to spend more on our schools. The remaining 35% think spending should either be cut or remain at current levels. Thats the kind of polling data that the presidents political advisers undoubtedly rely upon when they decide to appeal for more education spending. Yet the political reality is more complex than those numbers suggest. When the people we surveyed were told how much is actually spent in our schools$12,922 per student annually, according to the most recent government reportthen only 49% said they want to pony up more dollars. We discovered this by randomly splitting our sample in half, asking one half the spending question cold turkey, while giving the other half accurate information about current expenditure. Later in the same survey, we rephrased the question to bring out the fact that more spending means higher taxes. Specifically, we asked: Do you think that taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease or stay about the same? When asked about spending in this way, which addresses the tax issue frankly, we found that only 35% support an increase. Sixty-five percent oppose the idea, saying instead that spending should either decrease or stay about the same. The majority also doesnt want to pay more taxes to support their local schools. Only 28% think thats a good idea. So there is the nations debt crisis in a nutshell. If people arent told that nearly $13,000 is currently being spent per pupil, or if they arent reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch, they can be persuaded to think schools should be spending still more. The public is not altogether foolish about such matters. They know that schools are underperforming. When asked what percentage of ninth graders graduate from high school within four years, they accurately estimate, on average, that only 72%

Paul E. Peterson

Do We Really Need to Spend More on Schools?

Hoover Institution

Stanford University

manage to do so. (That percentage is almost exactly what official government statistics report.) But the public is tempted to think that the way to fix the problem is to spend more. So it makes good political sense for the president to call for more spending but never mention current expenditure levels, or the fact that more spending implies higher taxes. But ignoring reality also leads to bigger debts.

About the Author

Mr. Peterson is a professor of government at Harvard University and directs Harvards Program on Education Policy and Governance. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Paul E. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K12 Education, and editor in chief of Education Next: A Journal of Opinion and Research. He is also the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. His research interests include educational policy, federalism, and urban policy. Some of his current research efforts include evaluating the effectiveness of school reform plans around the country. Peterson is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has won numerous awards, including the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Prize.

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal. 2011 Dow Jones & Co. All Rights Reserved.

Paul E. Peterson

Do We Really Need to Spend More on Schools?

Hoover Institution

Stanford University