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The Polling Center: No Backlash to Public Education Cuts?

Polling over the last two years from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune suggests that education has not become more salient to Texas voters, nor have perceptions of school quality suffered significantly.

Fourth and fifth grade students at the Austin Discovery School.

Education advocates expressed reserved optimism last week when the House and Senate released their respective budgets. While neither restored last session’s now-infamous $5.4 billion in cuts to education, the House proposal would increase education spending by $2.7 billion, $1 billion more than the Senate version. Despite the very public proclamations of educational end times since the cuts were made, the public appears to have taken little notice, providing at least some of the bulwark — along with the tried and true low spending, low service orthodoxy — for the Legislature’s resistance to restoring the cuts in whole.

The guarded optimism over the partial restoration of the 2011 cuts comes after two years in which critics awaited an outcry that never quite reached the volume many predicted at the time. Polling over the last two years from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune suggests that education has not become more salient to Texas voters, nor have perceptions of school quality suffered significantly.

Education has remained static in voters’ assessments of the most important problems, remaining the choice of between 8 and 12 percent of Texans in each of the last seven polls that we’ve conducted since May 2011. As with many issues, party identification frames voters’ perceptions of the importance of education. While Democrats appear somewhat more concerned about education than Republicans, fewer than one in five Democrats chose it as the state’s most important problem in those surveys, while the percentage of Republicans choosing education has consistently remained below 10 percent.

Public perceptions provide an ambiguous gauge of whether and how reductions in per pupil funding affected the efficacy of the state’s education system. But what is clear is that education is actually only one among a whole host of priorities competing for oxygen this session. That competition isn’t limited to transportation, water, tax cuts, health care and everything else with an advocate: 32 percent of voters support continuing to limit government by approving no new spending and no new taxes.

The relatively low priority Texans assign to education funding could just as easily reflect the fact that teachers and administrators have been doing a good job with less and that voters simply aren’t noticing any ill effects. In order to assess this possibility, we can look to another question that was asked in October 2012 and February 2013. Specifically, we asked respondents whether K-12 education in Texas is “a lot better,” “somewhat better,” “about the same,” “somewhat worse” or “a lot worse” compared with a year ago, a question explicitly designed to assess whether Texans were perceiving changes. While the most important problem question is limited by the fact that the state faces many priorities, we should be able to pick up signs of change in the public’s perception of quality in this more specific item.

Yet the results don’t overwhelmingly suggest widespread perceptions of a crisis in public school classrooms. In October 2012, 45 percent of respondents said that the education system was “about the same,” “somewhat better” or “a lot better” compared to a year ago, while 43 percent said it was “somewhat worse” or “a lot worse”. When we asked again in our most recent survey, 47 percent said it was the same or better, 38 percent it was worse — a notable decline in the negative responses and, while not a glowing endorsement, not exactly a sign that end times have arrived, either.

When we look only at parents with children in school, 58 percent said public education was the same or better and 36 percent said it was worse in October 2012, while in February, 57 percent said it was better and 36 percent said it was worse. Contrary to the expectations of critics of the 2011 funding cuts, parents with kids in the public schools appear to be somewhat more positive about the system compared with the public at large.

These results could be a reflection of patterns in public opinion we see in other areas of public life. Public opinion surveys frequently find apparent contradictions between local experience and broader institutional judgments. The classic example is people’s discontent with Congress as a whole but approval of their particular representatives. (For example, favorability ratings for Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz were 32 percent and 42 percent respectively, while only 14 percent approved of the job the US Congress was doing.) Texans may assess education similarly: ask people what they think of “the schools” and they will tell you that they’re a mess, but ask them what they think of their child’s school and you might have to restrain their effusiveness.

The UT/Texas Tribune surveys also sample self-declared registered voters, a population that is on average more affluent than the general population, and so less likely to be living in low-income areas with struggling schools.

Even allowing for such caveats, there is little evidence of a large-scale negative reaction to education funding cuts in Texas public opinion. Resistance from the Republican legislative leadership to restoring the cuts (or increasing funding beyond those cuts absent a court order) reflects the fact that while everyone may be “for” education, it is but one among many priorities. Maybe more importantly, the cuts of last session appear to be affecting public perception far less than many nervous legislators expected when the 2011 session reached its ugly end.

Tribune pollster Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.

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