I attended First Focus’ annual Children’s Budget Summit this week to hear about the latest federal budget trendlines affecting programs that serve children. The accompanying report is full of interesting information on the United States’ budget priorities. Across all programs, inflation-adjusted federal spending on children declined by 13.6 percent from 2010 to 2014. Education is down 15.1 percent, and early childhood spending 6.2 percent over the same time period. These are sobering statistics, especially since, as we noted earlier this year in Subprime Learning, public awareness of the importance of the early years is higher now than ever before. Even though we know that investing in kids markedly improves their long-term life outcomes and saves public money, our representatives in Washington have been steadily cutting back on programs that support children.

Public opinion on early education is as clear as the research. At the event, First Focus announced polling that shows 84 percent of Americans want us to act now to improve conditions for kids. And that sort of overwhelming support isn’t an anomaly—it tracks previous polling.

Later in the week, I served on a discussion panel at the American Enterprise Institute discussing a recent Friedman Foundation poll on controversial education topics. While the poll generally focused on school choice issues and the Common Core, there was one set of findings that connected to the First Focus findings.

The Friedman Foundation’s poll asked Americans if they thought that our per-pupil education spending is high enough. Fully 56 percent answered that we don’t spend enough; just 10 percent answered that we spend too much. To confirm the responses, the poll then offered our current average per pupil spending—$10,658—and asked if this changed their answer. The percentage that thought education spending is too high rose by just 3 points, to 13 percent—47 percent of Americans still answered that we should spend more.

In sum, the data show that: 1) Americans overwhelmingly want us to do more in early childhood, 2) only a small percentage of Americans want us to spend less on education generally, and 3) we’ve been cutting education spending at the federal level over the last five years.

Why might this be so? Why are we doing so little to expand access to high-quality early education programs when public support and research are so clearly aligned?

I think there are a few things going on here. First of all, consider that education is rarely a determinative political issue at the federal level—and it’s only marginally more so at the state level. It’s rare that voters will allow a candidate’s education platform to sway their vote if they disagree on other, more provocative issues. Politicians know this, which leaves them relatively free to govern education—and set its budgets—without attending too carefully to public opinion.

Second, education polling sometimes captures a conflicted picture of Americans because of the muddled state of American education politics. While large percentages of Americans support government investments on behalf of early childhood, this avoids any of the rancorous partisan debates that come with specific early childhood efforts. In other words, Democrats and Republicans alike support “education” and “young children,” but they are more sharply divided on whether or not the federal government should expand pre-K access. Once the parties split on a particular proposal, we’d expect public opinion to shuffle somewhat along partisan lines. That’s why support for controversial measures like school vouchers and the Common Core State Standards varies considerably by party—while it doesn’t vary much for amorphous, as-yet-unpoliticized education policies like education savings accounts.

All of which is simply to say that early education advocates should be wary of polling showing large majorities supporting their policy preferences. There’s vast, and difficult, political terrain between that 84 percent support number and concrete action to stop the shrinking in federal budgets devoted to children.

Note: here’s a series of videos from the First Focus summit.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams