Educating Voters on Education Spending

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

The latest Public Policy Institute of California poll reflected a similar finding from previous PPIC polls that’s puzzling: When it comes to actual state spending priorities versus the knowledge voters have of those spending priorities the lineup is nearly reversed.

California spends the most money from its General Fund budget on K-12 education (42.6%), the next largest amount on Health and Human Services (27.7%), next comes Higher Education (11.9%) and finally Prisons and Corrections (9%). That’s reality. Here’s voter perception when it comes to state funding in order of most to least according to the new PPIC poll: Prisons, Health and Human Services, K-12 and Higher Ed.

PPIC asked what voters thought priorities should be when funding state services. What they thought the lineup should be matched exactly what the state budget allocation is: K-12, Health and Human Services, Higher Education and Prisons.

What explains this knowledge gap? Could it be the constant complaining by the education establishment that it needs more money? Certainly by running ads pushing education needs, as advocated by the California Teachers Association and others seeking more education dollars, a framework is set for voters to believe the state shortchanges education.

That might explain the thinking on education funding but why do Prisons and Corrections top the list of spending in the minds of voters?

It is unlikely the reason is the recent increase in reported crimes since PPIC has seen the same poll result since 2010.

Survey director and PPIC president Mark Baldassare suggested reasons for the Prisons top listing. “Our state prisons are overcrowded and have been under federal court order to spend more money to improve conditions. All of this news has raised public awareness about high prison costs.”

Baldassare added there are consequences of having Prisons and Corrections at the top of the list in perceived state spending while at the bottom of the list for preferred state spending. “Voters have supported the recent criminal justice initiatives such as three strikes reform, Prop 47, and Prop 57 sentencing reforms at least in part because they are looking for ways to reduce state spending on Prisons and Corrections.”

In preparing to write about these poll questions I checked back on a column from last year when PPIC asked about budget priorities. Frankly, the lazy thing to do would be just to re-run last year’s column.

Last year only 15% of adults and 17% of likely voters could identify the largest piece of state spending, K-12 education. This year practically identical numbers: 16% of adults and 17% of likely voters.

Last year I wrote: Republicans are more aware that K-12 takes the bigger piece of the budget pie (19%) than either Independents (17%) or Democrats (11%). This year: Republicans 20%, Democrats 16%, Independents 13%. So the Democrats’ knowledge has improved on this point and jumped past the Independents.

However, Democrats are much more likely to say prisons are the top budget priority (46%) than Republicans (31%) or Independents (31%).

How to educate the voters about the budget? We just came through an election in which a tax increase was extended primarily for education supported by voters that apparently think education is a low budget priority. Perhaps, some  education funding advocates like it this way because the perception might lead to support for increased dollars.

Here’s one modest suggestion: How about including in the state election materials a state budget-spending breakdown?

Education advocates should be on the side of educating voters.

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