Senior citizen support for school spending is growing

June 20, 2005

University Park, Pa. -- Local school districts can take heart from trends in senior citizen attitudes toward school spending since each succeeding bloc of senior voters attaches increased value to public school education, according to a Penn State study.

Senior citizens who oppose school taxes do so not because they are retirees on fixed incomes but because they came of age when funding education was less a public priority, says Michael B. Berkman, associate professor of political science.

Berkman and Eric Plutzer, associate professor of political science and sociology, are co-authors of the paper, "The Graying of America and Support for Funding the Nation's Schools," published in a recent issue (April 2005) of the Public Opinion Quarterly. Their research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Surveys going back 35 years show that community residents in their 70s tend to be less enthused about increased school spending than persons a generation younger, Berkman notes.

"Nevertheless, seniors, even among the 'oldest old,' can generally be supportive of educational spending but still vote against bonds and tax increases," says Plutzer. "This paradox lies in the fact that many school boards seek to approve the largest spending increase that will garner majority support. Since most seniors are less supportive than the average voter, they often up voting against such proposals."

"Even so, our statistical analyses of per-pupil spending show that communities with very high concentrations of seniors do not spend appreciably less on schools than other communities. In fact, they spend slightly more," Plutzer adds. These analyses will appear in "Ten Thousand Democracies," a book by Berkman and Plutzer to be published in November by Georgetown University Press.

Furthermore, the relative conservatism shown by today's senior citizens regarding school spending cannot be traced to their retirement status, Berkman adds. They demonstrated a similar degree of conservatism when they were a generation younger.

The growing support of senior citizens for educational spending is illustrated by the fact that, as indicated by the General Social Survey of 1973, a total of 51 percent believed that educational spending was too low. Yet, by 2002, this percentage had risen to 74 percent. Berkman and Plutzer show identical trends in many other national surveys and state polls.

"Education is now a top priority for the American public, with backing for government spending hikes at an all-time high," says Berkman. "Unlike support for defense spending, which cycles quite rapidly in response to international event and actual spending levels, this trend shows remarkable persistence and is unlikely to fall any time soon."

"Every generation becomes more supportive of educational spending, rather than less, as they reach their 60s and 70s. The implications are important, for they suggest that the predicted 'gray peril' to educational spending will not occur," Plutzer notes. "Rather, our results suggest that public support for educational spending will continue its remarkable rise."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017