Opinion: Carolina Beat

Perceptions and Realities of School Spending

Before you read the remainder of this column, estimate 1) how much North Carolina spends per student and 2) the average pay for a North Carolina teacher. Keep both figures in mind and proceed.

This year, Education Next collaborated with Harvard University to survey a nationally representative sample of 4,000 adults covering a variety of K-12 education issues. The ninth annual poll was conducted in May and June and released in August.

The most revealing aspects of the annual Education Next survey are respondents’ estimates of per student education spending and teacher salaries. The poll suggests that there is a growing gap between public perceptions and realities of taxpayer support for public schools.

According to the survey, respondents estimated that their local public schools spent an average of between $5,540 and $7,200 dollars per student. Parents offered the lowest average estimates, perhaps based on their perception of the value of instruction and services received. Unsurprisingly, teachers had the highest average estimates of per student spending. Neither group came close to the actual average expenditure in most states, including North Carolina.

In 2014, North Carolina’s public schools spent an average of nearly $8,500 per student. When including average spending for buildings and other capital costs, the total per student expenditure in our state approaches $9,000. In fact, no school district in North Carolina spent less than $7,200 a student and nearly 30 percent of the state’s school districts had per student expenditures of $10,000 or more.

1) Did your per-student estimate come close to the state average?

Similarly, respondents to the Education Next poll, with the exception of teachers, underestimated their state’s average teacher salaries by several thousand dollars. Survey estimates for average teacher salaries were between $31,850 and $39,700. The lowest salary estimates came from African-American and Hispanic respondents, although it is unclear why. Self-identified Republicans offered the highest nonteacher estimates.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction estimated that the average salary for a teacher on a 10-month contract was just under $47,800 last year, a figure that does not include nearly $14,500 in Social Security, retirement, and health insurance benefits provided to each full-time teacher in the state.

2) Does the average teacher make less or more than you thought?

It should be no surprise that respondents would arrive at different conclusions based on the information they have. When pollsters asked whether public school teacher salaries should increase, decrease, or stay about the same, nearly two-thirds of the general public thought that teachers deserved an increase. (To be honest, I am surprised the percentage was that low.) When provided the average annual salary of teachers in their state, however, support for a salary increase dropped to less than half.

Furthermore, a majority of respondents said they were unwilling to pay higher taxes to increase teacher salaries, even when the pollster did not disclose additional salary information. The survey authors concluded that “it is hard to say whether the public really wants a salary increase for teachers or not. It all depends on how much members of the public know and whether they are keeping in mind that the increment has to be covered by themselves as taxpayers.”

The gap between perception and reality has political consequences. Uninformed voters inevitably will support candidates who call for blindly spending more on public schools. Candidates who advance a more thoughtful approach to public school budgets may find that their political fortunes depend on persuading voters that existing tax rates and public school expenditures are sufficient. The only way to do so would be to disseminate information that most voters do not possess — present company now excepted.

Dr. Terry Stoops is director of research and education studies at the John Locke Foundation.