When state and local education budgets need cutting, Americans favor firing administrators, freezing salaries, basing layoffs on performance instead of seniority, increasing the number of students top teachers teach, and replacing pensions with individual retirement plans, according to a new poll.
Majorities of U.S. adults in the nationally representative survey approved of all these policies by wide margins (see sidebar). Forty-eight percent said if their own school district were facing a serious budget deficit, the best approach would be “to cut costs by dramatically changing how it does business.” Twenty-six percent said the district should instead “change as little as possible and wait for times to get better,” while just 11 percent said lawmakers should raise taxes.
“Americans are pretty sensible about how to slim down public education,” wrote Chester Finn Jr. and Amber Winkler in the report. They are president and vice president for research, respectively, at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which commissioned the survey. “The big challenge is turning those sound views into prudent yet forceful action.”
U.S. education spending has roughly tripled in the past 50 years in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Cato Institute. In 2010-2011 it remained stable, largely because the recession forced lawmakers to refuse further increases. Though student enrollment rose 24 percent between 1986 and 2009, the report observes, the number of teachers in U.S. schools grew by 43 percent and “instructional support staff” increased 150 percent.
Appetite for Tough Choices
Researchers from the FDR Group polled 1,009 Americans aged 18 and older, approximately one-quarter of whom were parents of schoolage children. Before polling, researchers formed in-person focus groups in four different U.S. cities to field-test questions for accuracy and plumb public opinion in greater depth.
Pollster and report coauthor Ann Duffett said she was “bursting to tell people” how seriously the average citizens her research team pulled in took the policy decisions they were asked to comment on.
“Folks of all ages, and it seemed all types of people, really wanted to talk about their reasoning,” she said.
Adults who were not parents had opinions right in line with parents, she said.
“A lot of times we asked these forced-choice questions because we don’t like the easy answers: ‘If you had to pick, which would it be?’ [Respondents] knew they would be disappointing somebody, but they did it,” she said. “They know that it’s tough times—they had a gut instinct to save jobs. If layoffs were inevitable, they wanted kids’ interests to be first. They can make that choice.”
End Seniority, Restructure Pensions
By 74 to 18 percent, respondents agreed teachers with poor performance should be “laid off first and those with excellent performance protected” rather than have “newcomers laid off first and veteran teachers protected.”
Duffett said she observed openness among participants to replacing traditional defined-benefit public-sector pensions with individual plans more common in the private sector, and that the poll reveals an opening for lawmakers to make their case for that and other, bigger changes.
“Make sure they know why you’re making cuts and make that public engagement part of your decision-making process,” she said.
“How Americans Would Slim Down Public Education,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute and FDR Group, August 2012: http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2012/20120802-How-Americans-Would-Slim-Down-Public-Education/20120802HowAmericaWouldSlimDownPublicEducationFINAL.pdf
How Americans Would Cut School Budgets
- Reducing the number of district-level administrators to the bare minimum: 69 percent favor.
- Closing or combining schools that have declining student enrollment: 63 percent favor.
- Merging small districts so they share things like the superintendent’s office, bus services, and clerical help: 63 percent favor.
- Freezing salaries for one year for all district employees: 58 percent favor.
- Shifting school staff from guaranteed pensions to individual retirement plans: 53 percent favor for all staff, 17 percent favor only for new hires.
- Reducing all teacher salaries by 5 percent instead of laying off 5 percent of the teaching staff: 74 percent favor.
- A larger class of 27 students “taught by one of the district’s best performing teachers” instead of a smaller class with 22 students “taught by a randomly chosen teacher”: 73 percent favor.
Image by Vlasta2.