According to a recent poll, 60 percent of 600 Michigan voters believe schools are underfunded and another 83 percent think teacher pay is about right or too low.

As much as anything, polls like this measure respondents' knowledge of the particular issue. Studies show that when respondents know the facts, their opinions on public education issues change significantly.

For example, a report, authored by William G. Howell of the University of Chicago and Martin R. West of Brown University and released last summer, found that 61 percent of a nationwide sample of 2,500 uninformed respondents thought school spending should increase — nearly the same result as the recent Michigan poll. When told what their local district actually spends, however, the "spend more" response fell by 10 points, to 51 percent.

Likewise, support for higher teacher salaries dropped from 69 percent to 55 percent when respondents were given the facts on average teacher pay. The somewhat larger before-and-after disparity on this question suggests that the public has an even poorer understanding of what teachers actually make. That conclusion is supported by a 2007 survey by Howell and West, in which respondents underestimated average teacher salaries by $14,000.

Given the above, how different would the results of that recent Michigan poll have been had respondents been given the facts about school funding in this state? If told that total school revenue increased by 33 percent in the last 15 years even after adjusting for inflation — the 2008 Michigan school district average was $13,000 per student — would 60 percent still think schools need more money? Would people still think teachers need higher pay if informed that average teacher salaries in Michigan are among the nation's highest? 

Incidentally, the most recent head of the polling company hired to conduct the Michigan survey has a new job: He's now the director of government affairs for the state's largest school employee union, the Michigan Education Association. The Detroit News, which commissioned the poll along with WXYZ TV, cast the results as coming "at a time when protests against the worst school cuts in Michigan history have reached a fever pitch, and could mean Senate Republicans have pushed too far with their focus on balancing the budget without raising taxes."