As Inkwell readers may recall, one of my pet peeves is that we spend too much money on education. Yes, too much. (I have some good company.)

You may be jumping to the conclusion that I don’t care if young people learn to love poetry or ponder the mysteries of the galaxies. But I do care. However, if we can’t get results from what we are already spending, I shudder to think what it would cost. We spend more on education than we used to when I was in school, and yet fewer people emerge nowadays with a passing acquaintance with reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

As a member in good standing of the Ebenezer Scrooge Project for Public Education, I stand foursquare in opposition to President Obama, who, when signing the debt ceiling bill, went out of his way to call for us to “keep making key investments in things like education.”

I realize that we Scrooges are in a minority–until the public is told what we actually spend on education. Paul Peterson, who directs Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, recently reported that 65 per cent of the public wants to spend more on education.

But if members of the public have the right information, they join us Scrooges:

When the people we surveyed were told how much is actually spent in our schools-$12,922 per student annually, according to the most recent government report-then only 49% said they want to pony up more dollars. We discovered this by randomly splitting our sample in half, asking one half the spending question cold turkey, while giving the other half accurate information about current expenditure.

Later in the same survey, we rephrased the question to bring out the fact that more spending means higher taxes. Specifically, we asked: “Do you think that taxes to fund public schools around the nation should increase, decrease or stay about the same?” When asked about spending in this way, which addresses the tax issue frankly, we found that only 35% support an increase. Sixty-five percent oppose the idea, saying instead that spending should either decrease or stay about the same. The majority also doesn’t want to pay more taxes to support their local schools. Only 28% think that’s a good idea.

Most people think of education spending in a vacuum-they don’t know current levels of spending or whether the money spent produces literacy and math skills. But this is relevant not only for education outlays:

So there is the nation’s debt crisis in a nutshell. If people aren’t told that nearly $13,000 is currently being spent per pupil, or if they aren’t reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch, they can be persuaded to think schools should be spending still more.

The public is not altogether foolish about such matters. They know that schools are underperforming. When asked what percentage of ninth graders graduate from high school within four years, they accurately estimate, on average, that only 72% manage to do so. (That percentage is almost exactly what official government statistics report.) But the public is tempted to think that the way to fix the problem is to spend more.

So it makes good political sense for the president to call for more spending but never mention current expenditure levels, or the fact that more spending implies higher taxes. But ignoring reality also leads to bigger debts.

Next time somebody asks you if we are spending enough on education (or anything else), first ask what the current spending is and then ask what we’re getting for our money.