Saturday, February 5, 2011

Poll: Voters prefer education investment to business tax breaks

A poll conducted last October by Winthrop University offers an interesting look at voters' feelings about South Carolina's public schools and their funding. It's a presumably credible poll, and it polled more than 740 voters. In the polling industry, a sample of 600 is considered sufficient, so more than 600 merely refines the data and serves to reinforce the poll's conclusions.

At a glance, it reveals that slightly more than one in five voters who identify themselves as Democrats and Independents name education as the most important problem facing the state. Among self-identified Republicans, as many as 17.1 percent say the same.

When these voters were asked if they believed that South Carolina's public schools were "currently being funded at adequate levels," 70 percent of the total said 'no,' and the breakdown by party affiliation was pretty convincing. More than 62 percent of self-identifying Republicans, and 65 percent of Independents said that current funding levels were insufficient. (Among Democrats, this view was shared by almost 85 percent.)

Yet when these respondents were given a description of Act 388, which eliminated the local property taxes used to fund school operating costs, and shifted those costs to a new one-percent non-grocery sales tax, almost 58 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Independents said they supported that move.

A chief criticism of Act 388 is that because school operating costs are now funded by the new one-cent sales tax, they are effectively capped at the amount of revenue that the tax generates in a given year. In a booming economy, the revenue might be healthy enough to fund school operating costs adequately. But South Carolina hasn't experienced a booming economy for several consecutive years, which means the new law -- implemented in 2007 -- has offered anemic support for school costs.

No group favored wholesale repeal of Act 388 (Democrats, at 18.3 percent, reflected the largest number to favor repeal). But given the options of (1) amending parts or (2) doing an undefined "something else," the electorate's inconsistency surfaces in abundance. Nearly a third of each party want to amend the law ("change parts"): 30 percent of Democrats, 33 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Independents. Yet almost as many say they want to "do something else" entirely: 25 percent of Democrats, 27 percent of Republicans and 23.5 percent of Independents.

What conclusion do you draw from that data? Seventy percent say schools are inadequately funded. But no more than a third want to repeal or change the most recent law restricting school funding, and roughly a quarter say they want to do something different -- but don't say what.

There's one unambiguous answer drawn from the data.

Respondents were asked for their preference between these two options:
"Spending money on improving education and worker training to make the South Carolina workforce look more attractive to businesses"
"Spending money on tax incentives and tax breaks for businesses to make the SC tax environment look more attractive to businesses"

How would you have answered?

If you were in the clear majority of each party category, you would have expressed a preference for investing is improvement to education and worker training: 81 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Independents answered this way.

But that was in October, and the poll included a random sample of South Carolina's voters. Now it's February, and the legislature is back in session. Will its budget priorities reflect the preferences of their constituents?

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