Federal Education Dollars Are Scarce and Must Be Used Wisely

Derek Thompson offers this table of Zogby poll results on what people think the federal budget looks like:

Even one penny on every dollar is too much to spend on international aid

The errors about foreign aid are famous, though it’s interesting that a solid 64 percent of people are in the ballpark on defense. It’s also funny what a low percentage say they’re “not sure.” Why would the many people who clearly have no idea what they’re talking about become convinced that they’re sure they know the answer. I wonder how much wronger some of these might be if there was no explicit “not sure” option.

The really interesting one, however, is education which I think reveals a serious misunderstanding. People who think that education spending is a large element of the American public sector are correct. I believe that it’s up there with defense and health care (Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) as the third major category of public investment. But it’s a very small element of federal spending, the money is overwhelmingly state and local. The federal government spends almost none of its budget on education, and the vast majority of Americans massively overestimate the federal commitment. This is why for federal education policy to be effective it needs to use federal funds as leverage to change the ways state and local governments use their money—distributing the funds equitably (or, ideally, more than equitably so that schools with lots of more kids get more money than schools where the parents have more resources) and spending them on stuff that’s useful. The administration’s aggressive plans for a No Child Left Behind rewrite are mostly focused on precisely this goal.