Michigan Voters: Schools Underfunded — But Do They Know Actual Spending?

This week the Detroit News reported on one of the measured reactions Michiganders have to proposals to address that state’s budget crisis:

Local public school districts have too little funding to provide a quality education, according to 60 percent of voters surveyed in an exclusive Detroit News/WXYZ (Channel 7) poll released Tuesday.

Only 23 percent of respondents said the taxes and fees paid for public education are “too high”; 60 percent said they are about right, and 12 percent said “too low.”

What’s missing from the story?

Any mention of how many dollars Michigan already spends per pupil, or whether that amount was disclosed to the people polled. I’m guessing it wasn’t disclosed that (according to NCES data) in 2006-07 Michigan spent more than $11,600 per student on K-12 education. Or else the results of the new public opinion survey might have been somewhat different. Why do I say that?

Research released earlier this year and highlighted in Education Next shows that the information about actual spending changes public opinion by 10 percentage points. When researchers Martin West and William Howell conducted their study, the average respondent thought schools spent $4,231 per student when the actual figure was over $10,000.

Without the critical element of disclosing the actual per-pupil funding figures to respondents, those formulating public policy in Michigan should not read much into the poll results. Instead, they should begin to wonder if just maybe they’re facing a phony funding crisis.