The American Public Underestimates What Public Schools Spend

Lincoln Network’s Project Nickel will change that by showing per-student spending by school 

With students across the country heading back to school, it’s a good time to take a look at what the American public thinks about the state of K-12 education. A new survey released by Ed Choice and Braun Research finds that parents and the general public continue to be pessimistic about the direction of K-12 education. The national poll also finds that parents broadly support school choice policies, like education savings accounts, once they understand how they work. 

One of the report’s key findings is that Americans continue to underestimate what public schools spend.

“Most Americans and parents (four out of five) drastically underestimate public school spending. The median respondent for the general public said their state spends $7,000 per student. Parents were even further off in their estimates (median response = $5,000).” 

But the public’s view about school funding once they get more information about what schools are actually spending: 

“When provided their own state’s average per‐student spending, Americans are less likely to say public school funding is at a level that is “too low.” In a split‐sample experiment, we asked two slightly different questions. On the baseline version, 53 percent of respondents said public school funding was “too low.” However, on the version inserting a statistic for average state public per‐pupil spending (state range: $7,576–$23,686 in FY18), the proportion that said spending was “too low” shrank by 19 percentage points to 34 percent. That drop has widened since the spring by ‐5 points.”

In other words, only 1 in 3 Americans think that public schools are under-funded when they know what public schools are actually spending. 

That’s why Project Nickel — a new technology tool created by Lincoln’s Studio Team in partnership with Ed Choice — has the potential to change the way that the public thinks about public education.  

Project Nickel offers a search engine and map to explore public school spending using state government data showing per-pupil spending at the school level. Thanks to a 2015 federal law, state education agencies are now required to provide an annual estimate showing exactly what public schools are spending. 

Across the United States, the average per-pupil expenditure at public schools is more than $14,000–more than double what parents and the public apparently think, according to the Ed Choice and Braun Research survey. 

Using Project Nickel’s search engine, parents can now learn exactly what their child’s public school will spend this year on each student. This new transparency about what public schools are spending has the potential to fundamentally change how the public thinks about school funding. 

For starters, Project Nickel’s data can dispel the widespread view that schools are under-funded. Over time, raising awareness about exactly what public schools spend per-child has the potential to grow support for education choice policies that give parents control over their child’s share of school funding. 

For example, a growing number of states are giving parents direct control of school funding by awarding K-12 education savings accounts (ESAs), which parents can use to pay for school tuition, tutoring, or other education expenses for their children. According to Ed Choice’s poll, 84 percent of school parents support ESAs when they are given an explanation of how the program would work. Thanks to Project Nickel, parents can now imagine how they might spend their child’s share of school funding if they were given direct control to create the best learning program possible. 

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Dan Lips
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Garret Johnson Lincoln Executive Director
Garrett Johnson
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Zach Graves
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Sean Roberts
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Arthur Rizer
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