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So the Public Wants Smaller Class Size, More Funding AND No Tax Hikes? Hmm…

Late last week I chimed in on the results of the 2011 Education Next–PEPG Survey of Public Opinion on school reform issues, noting the significant uptick in support for private school vouchers. Super edublogger Joanne Jacobs drew out another finding, namely that the views of teachers and the general public on key reform issues seem to be diverging rather than coming together.

But I think that perhaps the most insightful observation on the results came from Mike Petrilli at the Education Gadfly, who wrote about “the school–and the deficits–we deserve”:

…particularly timely, in this era of fiscal austerity, are new insights about the public’s views on school budgets. And guess what: On education, like everything else, Americans don’t want to make tough choices. They want to keep taxes low while boosting school spending. Sound familiar?

Petrilli notes that 65 percent of survey respondents don’t want to increase taxes to pay for education. That’s nationwide. The number should be at least as high in Colorado — which is bad news for the Rollie Heath education tax hike headed to our November ballot.

On the other hand, Petrilli observes that 60 percent of Americans in the Education Next poll want government funding of public schools to increase. In that light, what Coloradans think of the Lobato lawsuit, demanding the courts to call for billions more in K-12 dollars and currently underway in a Denver courtroom, is anyone’s guess.

Petrilli continues:

And on what does the public want these phantom extra dollars to be spent? Not higher teacher salaries; once told that the average teacher makes close to $55,000, only 43 percent of the public supports boosting pay.

No, Americans want exactly what they’ve been getting for fifty years: smaller class sizes….

And as astute readers here know, pursuing smaller class sizes represents a long-term K-12 strategy that’s been high on cost and (except for a small subset of at-risk students in early grades, or some kinds of special-needs kids) has produced very little in results. Petrilli’s conclusion is biting, but brings home an important point worth discussing:

Many people complain that our schools aren’t responsive to public demands, but the opposite seems true. The public wants small classes and is less concerned about paying teachers well; that’s exactly the system we’ve got. And, I suppose, the system we deserve.

There is definitely something to this argument he makes. But how do we get to a much smarter overall K-12 strategy of focused and targeted class-size reductions, improved teacher quality, shared accountability and broad parental choice — in tough economic times and without clear majority support? For one thing, we have to continue the education behind education reform, carefully bringing public opinion along as effective leadership and systemic change brings results.

Thanks to Mike Petrilli for reminding readers of an important point as we continue to move the ball forward.