The latest annual poll of America’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools by Phi Delta Kappan and Gallup, shows that a majority of Americans want the federal budget fixed before school funding goes up.

When asked, “In your opinion, which is more important for the federal government to do in the next five years — balance the federal budget or improve the quality of the education system in the nation?” 60 percent of respondents said they wanted to budget balanced; while 38 percent said fix the quality of education. (See p. 18 here) Back in 1996, those results were almost polar opposites, with 64 percent of respondents saying the feds should focus on fixing education, and just 25 percent wanting them to balance the budget. As the Washington Times reported:

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. …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.

Maybe there’s another explanation, too. Public-school expenditures now exceed $12,000 based on the latest figures from the U.S. Department of Education (2008-09 school year). That means taxpayers will wind up spending an average of $156,000 on each public-school child through his or her high-school graduation. All told American taxpayers are spending more than $616 billion annually on elementary and secondary school education. Of that amount, 52 percent ($319 billion) goes to instruction. The remainder, nearly $297 billion, goes to such things as administration, capital outlay, maintenance, and interest on debt from all that bonding to pay for new school buildings.

For all that spending, just under one-third (32 percent) of 4th and 8th grade students are proficient or better in reading. Only 40 percent of 4th graders are proficient or better in math, dropping to 34 percent of 8th graders. And, about 25 percent of American high-school students don’t graduate.

The U.S. Department of Education was established back in 1979 to give education a more prominent voice in the federal government. Federal leadership (not to mention money) was supposed to reverse the “rising tide of mediocrity” washing out government schooling performance.

Perhaps Americans are reconsidering what, if any, business the federal government has in education—especially since the only thing that seems to have changed is that we’re spending more for the same mediocre results. It’s also worth considering what kind of “leadership” the feds are supposed to provide when they can’t seem to get their own fiscal house in order.