Wisconsinites Perception on School Spending Askew of Reality

Education spending likely will be a key issue in the upcoming Wisconsin gubernatorial race. The current Democratic front runner is State Department of Public Instruction Superintendent Tony Evers. Democrats are ripping Governor Scott Walker for calling himself the “education governor.” They claim his recent attention to and additional funding for public schools after what they claim is years of neglect is nothing more than election year gimmickry. But results of survey research commissioned by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released this morning shows that an overwhelming majority of Wisconsinites underestimate how much government spends on K-12 public schools:

…our public opinion polling found that more than 80% of Wisconsinites underestimate
how much the government spends on K-12 public schools. But when told of the average
spending of $10,439, 60% of Wisconsinites (including 80% of Republicans and 65% of
independents) believe that the current funding level is either “too high” or “just right.” Walker’s
budget with historic spending makes it more likely that 27.14% of people (including 26.48%
independents) to vote for him. Also, the effect of Walker’s historic collective bargaining law,
Act 10, on students and teachers depends on partisanship, but a majority of independents believe
it has had a negative impact on teachers and students.

The finding is part of a larger effort by WILL to determine the impact messaging has on the perception of education-related issues in Wisconsin.

(WILL) commissioned Research Now Survey Sampling International to
conduct a statewide survey experiment of 1,500 adults in Wisconsin. We tested a number of messages
related to education reform, ranging from vouchers to Education Savings Accounts (ESA). We also
surveyed public opinion on spending on K-12 schools and the impact of Act 10, the 2011 collective
bargaining reform law, on teachers and students.

To conduct the school choice messaging study for vouchers, charter schools, and ESAs,
respondents were randomized into one of several messaging conditions, exposing them to certain
types of information. Following this randomization, respondents are asked about their level of
support for school choice on a five point scale ranging from “strongly oppose” to “strongly
support.” We learn which messages increase support by comparing the average responses of
those in the control group to the average response of those in each treatment group.

We found that school choice is in fact popular, but the words that are used to describe it are of
critical importance. For example, Republicans increase their support of vouchers when discussed
in terms of civics and patriotism. Democrats and African Americans increase their support when
discussed in terms of diversity. Surprisingly, Education Savings Accounts have majority or
plurality of support amongst all demographics, including Democrats, and suggest strong appetite
for more school choice.

On the school funding issue: before being told statewide average spending is $10,400 per student, 54% of respondents thought funding was too low. 34% though it was just right and 12% thought it was too high. After being told the per student amount, 40% thought it was too low, 41% thought it just right and 20% thought it too high. Just 8% of respondents knew the correct amount of per pupil spending (between $10,000 and $12,000), according to WILL.

That perception versus reality gap could loom large in a governor’s race where the amount spent on schools will likely be heavily debated.