In what may be bad news for Governor Scott Walker’s claim to be an education governor this campaign season, Wisconsinites across the political spectrum underestimate the amount spent on public education. Ironically, the amount actually spent may be just right for most voters, according to a new poll conducted for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).

Only eight percent of the respondents to the WILL poll knew the correct amount of per pupil spending in Wisconsin. Over 80 percent of Wisconsinites underestimate how much the government spends on K-12 public schools.

“Even among Republicans, 70 percent of Republicans underestimated the amount of funding,” said Dr. Will Flanders, Research Director for WILL, in an interview Monday. “80 percent of Democrats underestimated the amount of funding.”

Average statewide spending per pupil is approximately $10,400, according to WILL.

“Most people think we spend between $4,000 and $8,000 per student,” Flanders said. “Across the board, Republicans, Democrats,  most people think we’re spending less than we are.”

Flanders said one cause of the misunderstanding about school funding could be how the Democrats are using only state funding numbers when debating spending on private school vouchers.

“One of the contexts about vouchers, to say the voucher amount is higher than school funding, which is pretty much a lie,” Flanders said. “Once you put in local funding, (the voucher amount) is obviously much less. When we look at that statement, it tended not to include the local component which for most school districts in the state, it’s a significant share of the funding. In some districts it’s the majority of the funding.”

The poll by WILL was used to test different messages regarding school funding and school choice to see the best way to inform public debate on those issues.

“When we told people how much we’re spending, almost $10,500 per kid state and local, the share of people who thought spending was too high went up across the board,” Flanders said. “The share of people who thought it was just right went up and the share of people who thought we spending too little went down.”

Before respondents were told that the average statewide spending, 54 percent thought that the amount of spending on education was too low. Just 34 percent of respondents felt that the amount of per pupil spending was just right, while 12 percent felt the amount of spending was too much.

However, once respondents were told the correct amount of per pupil spending, only 40 percent thought that the amount was too low. The amount of respondents who thought the amount was just right climb to 41 percent, and the amount that thought per pupil spending was too high climbed to 20 percent.

There was movement in every category when respondents were told the correct amount of per pupil spending. Before they were told the correct amount of funding per pupil, 81 percent of Democrats thought the amount was too low and only 14 percent thought it was just right. However, once they were told the correct amount of per pupil spending, those Democrats that thought the spending was too low dropped to 65 percent while the number who thought it was the right amount climbed to 31 percent.

Among independents, the share of people who thought public education spending per pupil was too little declined from 53 percent to 38 percent when they were told the correct amount of spending. The percentage of respondents who thought the amount was just right climbed higher from 34 percent to 39 percent, and the number who thought we spent too much rose from 13 percent to 23 percent.

“The message here is, we tend to be afraid to use actual numbers, people really can’t comprehend these large numbers,” Flanders said. “But when we take it to the student level, that $10,000 per student sounds like a lot to the average person. So maybe more so than pushing the x-billions in dollars that we’re increasing in funding this year, Republicans taking it down to the per-student level in this state, and the even greater level of funding per student we’re going to have next year, could be an effective way to get people to be more supportive.”

The poll also showed that there was a plurality of support amongst all demographics for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are a relatively new form of school choice that would allow parents to use a portion of the money that would be spent on a child’s education to be used at private schools or other educational opportunities such as technical schools. A modest bill to introduce ESAs for gifted children failed to get a vote in the last legislature.

According to the survey, 64 percent of those polled support ESAs. Only 23 percent oppose or strongly opposed the accounts. When informed about their use to pay for classes at a local college or university, 75 percent of respondents expressed support for ESAs.

The more traditional forms of school choice were less popular.

Private school vouchers, such as those given in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the Racine Parental Choice Program and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program had the support of 49 percent (23 percent strong support and 26 percent support) of respondents. Not surprisingly, the program is very popular with Republicans with 71 percent support, but just 29 percent of Democrats support the program.  However, a majority of Democrats supported the program when told that school voucher programs actually increase diversity by offering minority students an opportunity to attend those schools that would normally be out of their financial reach. Independents and residents of the metro Milwaukee area were more supportive of voucher programs when told that students would be able to attend safer schools.

Charter schools had the support of 50 percent of the respondents to the poll, 30 percent support and 20 percent strongly support charter schools. Again, Democrats were most skeptical of charter schools, with only 34 percent supporting this form of school choice. However, when told that charter schools were public schools open to all students, support jumped in nearly all categories.

The poll also looked at what the public thought of the effect of Act 10, the 2011 collective bargaining reform for public employees, on education. A majority of both independents and Democrats believe that Act 10 has had a negative effect on teachers and students.

“What I think that this shows is there is room for teaching people about the effects of Act 10,” Flanders said. “Particularly with the student data, it’s unclear what people are really thinking is the negative effect on students. You can see the media narrative with the negative effect on teachers. You can understand where people get that perception even though it’s not true.”

Flanders said it’s possibly a sign of the partisan polarization in this state. “If we ask what is the effect on school lunches, the breakdown would probably be very similar,” Flanders said. “If anything is Act 10, a certain segment of the population just assumes that it’s bad.”

The poll of 1500 people was conducted by Research Now Survey Sampling International for WILL and has a margin of error for the topline results of ±2.5 percentage points.