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Gauging Public Opinion on Tax Hikes for Schools? Good Luck

A couple recent polls out of Pennsylvania and California—two states that have made significant cuts in K-12 spending—appear to show a public willing to pay more in taxes to stave off future budget reductions.

But how much can be gleaned from those polls? Voters aren't always as eager to support tax hikes for education as they claim to be in the abstract.

The public's opinion of new public money going to education will likely be tested on lots of fronts in 2012, as ballots fill up with state and local measures asking voters to increase the revenue flow. And arguments about government spending on schools and other services could prove a crucial issue for many candidates for governor and the legislature around the country, particularly in states where the budget ax has fallen on education.

In Pennsylvania, 38 percent of state residents said boosting state funding for education and improving schools should be a top priority for state officials, according to a poll released recently by the Education Policy and Leadership Center. Education came in second, behind only job creation, out of seven categories. (The center advocates for adequate and equitable funding, among its other goals.)

And in California, 64 percent of state residents polled said they would favor increasing taxes for schools, with 32 percent opposed, according to a poll released by the University of Southern California, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, and the Los
Angeles Times
. Residents also appear to be taking notice of the pain schools are absorbing. Asked what changes they've seen at their children's and grandchildren's schools as a result of budget cuts, 60 percent pointed to higher class sizes; large numbers also said they had been asked to purchase more school supplies on their own, and many said they've seen a loss of arts and after-school programs.

But before you consider those numbers as proof of voters' appetite to spend money on schools, remember recent events in Colorado.

Earlier this month, voters in the political swing state thoroughly rejected a ballot item that would have raised an estimated $3 billion for schools over five years. Observers on both sides of the issue said that ongoing state and national economic woes almost certainly pulled many voters into the "no" column—despite many accounts of the impact of recent school budget shortfalls.

Opponents of tax hikes for schools are most likely to pound away at similiar arguments next year, contending that states and households can't afford to have more money taken out of their pockets during these difficult economic times.

It's also safe to assume that voters' opinions on tax hikes for schools will be shaped over the coming year, at least to some degree, by the arguments put forward by governors and legislators, pro- and con-.

And now I'll ask for your prognostications: Is the idea of raising taxes for schools a winning one or a recipe for political defeat in 2012?

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