Bribing voters with promises of more bread and circuses is one of the oldest political tricks in the book—dating back to the days of the decaying Roman Republic.

What makes modern-day American politicians different is that school funding is the new elections currency—in addition to plenty of circus-worthy spectacles. Gubernatorial races in Florida and Pennsylvania are cases in point. Challengers say school funding’s down, and incumbents say it’s up.

These see-saw scenes abound across the country. All that’s missing are the rubber noses and floppy shoes.

Paul Peterson, Harvard University professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow, details why the “education spendthrifts,” as he calls them, are so successful at pulling at voters’ purse strings by pulling on their heartstrings in his recent Wall Street Journal editorial:

It’s easy to see why candidates promise more money for schools. As long as taxes are ignored and no mention is made of current levels of expenditure, calling for more spending is a political no-brainer. In the recently released Education Next poll of a nationally representative sample of the public, for which I serve as a co-director, 60% of Americans say they want to spend more. Among parents, 70% want more spending, and 75% of teachers agree.

Naturally. School funding means more money for “the children,” and who would oppose “the children,” right? Peterson explains why hard facts help bring some much-needed reality to the debate:

But if one drills down, much of that enthusiasm evaporates in a cloud of confusion and inconsistency. …

Support for more spending fell to 44% from 60% when respondents were given information on current amounts of spending. Levels fell further to only 26% favoring more spending among the group asked if they favored tax increases to fund higher spending.

Political debates over school spending also take place in a fog because the public has the illusion that the rest of the nation’s schools are expensive but their local schools are a bargain. When asked to estimate per-pupil expenditures nationwide, the public makes an average estimate of $10,155—almost exactly the $10,615 per-pupil expenditure level estimated by the Bureau of the Census for school expenditures in 2012, though lower than the $12,608 per-pupil figure reported for 2011 by the Department of Education.

But when asked about costs locally, Americans think their schools are giving their children an education at reasonable prices. On average, they say the cost is only $6,486 per pupil in their district, barely half the actual costs of $12,608 per pupil in 2011, according to the Education Department. Local estimates by both parents and teachers are even lower. …

Whatever the reasons for the misperceptions, the facts are clear: Parents, teachers and the public at large all think that local schools are giving them more for less—even when that is unlikely. That’s why politicians who favor more spending deliberately sow confusion about current expenditures. These are all reasons why transparency in spending should be part of the school-reform conversation.

Peterson is right. Another reality check would be funding students directly instead of pouring large lumps-sums of taxpayer dollars through expansive (and costly) school district bureaucracies. Back-packing associated education funding to individual students and letting that funding follow them to schools of their parents’ choice is one way to make education expenditures more transparent and real. Another is allowing parents who do not prefer a public school option to deposit what the state would have sent to the local school district to educate their child into an education savings account (ESA) instead.

With those funds parents could choose the educational providers and services they think are best—and save any remaining funds for future education expenses such as college.

Transparency is a great first step. But empowering parents over their children’s education is the final destination.