Last week we looked at Education Week's 2007 Quality Counts study and its Chance-for-Success Index, which found that Southern states lag behind the national average in a variety of measures. The study ranked Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama tied at 45th overall.

A recent survey of Tennessee voters by Vanderbilt University's Peabody Center for Education Policy provides some clues as to why this might be.

Among the survey's findings, 44% ranked education as the second most important issue in Tennessee (after health care at 54%). 60% gave the Tennessee education system a grade of "mediocre to poor" and 70% said teachers should be paid more. Yet 59% oppose raising state or local taxes for increased education spending.

Tennessee prides itself in having no state income tax (except a tax on interest, dividends and investment income that isn't advertised by the chambers of commerce). But we have a variety of other taxes to make up for it, including a regressive sales tax of up to 9.75%, various county "wheel taxes" (which are the same whether the wheels are on a 1987 Toyota or a brand new Mercedes Benz), and gasoline taxes which by statute are reserved for road building and maintenance (leading many to characterize Tennessee as "first in roads, last in schools.")

One interesting finding of the Vanderbilt study is that people are resistant to new taxes for education because of these taxes. 67% of those surveyed said that the state's sales tax makes them opposed to any new taxes for education, and 44% suggest diverting funds from other programs. Taxpayers seem to feel the money is there but our priorities are misplaced.

Despite opposing new taxes for education, respondents overwhelmingly approved of various measures to improve education, including tougher graduation standards (79%), ensuring equal access to advanced placement courses and academic assistance (90%), and expanding pre-school programs (87%). Yet 57% said they do not think Tennessee taxpayers are getting their money's worth from the state's education system, suggesting that we already spend enough but we just don't spend it wisely.

On the other hand, the survey found underwhelming support for "vouchers", with 60% opposed to using state funds for private schools so "parents can choose where to send their children." This suggests that Tennesseans have faith in their public school system at least to the extent that they want to preserve it.

The full survey and summary of responses can be found here (PDF format).