What’s more important than ensuring that children get a better education? For most Americans this election cycle, it’s the federal budget.
As President Obama continues to assail the Republican presidential ticket for pushing a budget blueprint that could cut education spending, polling data that emerged Wednesday shows that the vast majority of Americans think getting the U.S. back on solid fiscal footing trumps increasing school funding.
A survey by Gallup and the Phi Delta Kappa International education association finds that 60 percent of Americans think it’s more important to balance the federal budget than to “improve the quality of education.”
The poll indicates a seismic shift in public attitudes toward education as a national priority, at least when compared with the pressing need to slash federal spending. In 1996, Gallup asked the same question, and nearly two-thirds of Americans said that improving K-12 classrooms was more important than the budget deficit.
Analysts said the poll doesn’t mean that the country cares less about education than it did 16 years ago, but rather shows a restlessness stemming from the weak economic recovery, annual deficits and the ballooning national debt.
“I think it reflects a degree of concern about the federal budget that just didn’t exist back in 1996, when the results [of the Gallup question] were the opposite,” said John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“The percentage of people concerned about the deficit is only slightly higher than those concerned about education. It’s not that people don’t think education is important; it’s just that when you juxtapose the two alternatives, the budget deficit takes precedence,” he said.
The poll results were released as Mr. Obama was ramping up attacks on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, on the issue of education. Mr. Ryan is the author of the most recent Republican budget plan, which calls for significant cuts in discretionary spending, including reductions aimed at the Department of Education.
Mr. Obama long has called for increased federal spending in education as a way to spur economic growth at home and ensure that the U.S. remains competitive with other nations. For those efforts, one may expect Mr. Obama to hold a significant edge over Mr. Romney among those who consider education one of the country’s most pressing issues.
While he does lead Mr. Romney among such folks, his advantage is only 5 percentage points; 49 percent of those sampled by Gallup said they would support Mr. Obama if they were voting “solely on the basis of a desire to strengthen public schools,” while 44 percent said they would back the Republican ticket.
In an attempt to widen his lead on the issue, Mr. Obama has unleashed a series of attacks on the Republicans, suggesting that if Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are elected, they will take a hatchet to education spending.
During his weekly address Saturday, he said the Republicans’ plan “means fewer kids in Head Start, fewer teachers in our classrooms” and other consequences.
“That plan doesn’t invest in our future; it undercuts our future,” Mr. Obama said. He has reiterated those criticisms on the campaign trail this week.
The Romney campaign responded Wednesday by arguing that Mr. Obama’s poor handling of the economy has harmed young Americans.
“The Obama economy has been deeply unfair to the next generation, burdening them with trillions in new debt and leaving half of recent graduates jobless or underemployed,” Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. “Mitt Romney has a bold plan to reform our schools and provide all our young people with the skills they need to succeed.”
The Gallup poll also uncovered what could be a silver lining for the president’s re-election hopes: Many Americans would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund school reform, a cornerstone of the president’s platform, which calls for higher rates on the wealthy to fund federal spending in education and other areas.
Nearly two-thirds of those polled said they would be willing to pay more in taxes if it would lead to improvements in the nation’s urban school districts, though that question broke down along party lines. Eighty percent of Democrats, compared with 40 percent of Republicans, said yes.
“It’s always notable when the American public seems willing to pay higher taxes to accomplish certain things,” Mr. Sides said. “The devil is in the details — Whose taxes? How much? — but it is qualified good news for a Democratic administration that wants to use tax dollars to invest in education.”