A Hoover Institution scholar, Roger A. Freeman, in bygone times observed wryly that popular support for dumping more and more public dollars into public education called to mind the alchemists of yore, who never managed to turn base metals into gold, but, say, what did that prove? Only – so far as the alchemists themselves were concerned – that the experiment hadn’t been tried long enough.

The emotional linkage of alchemy and the more-money-for-public-schools movement is an unhappy one – a reminder that baseless and unwarranted faiths can be as stubborn as, well, education lobbyists, making their umpteenth pitch for another financial transfusion.

What’s heartening, at last, is that the public may be catching on to the emptiness of the lobbyists’ arguments.

Consider a brand new poll by the University of Texas-Austin’s government department and Texas Politics Project. The poll – which shows opinion evenly divided on the quality of the public schools – indicates that just 37 percent of Texans see increased funding as the remedy for the schools’ record of stagnant or declining achievement.

By contrast, 56 percent see more accountability as the answer. There we go at last. At a minimum, we’re pointing in the right direction – away from money as plasma for laggard schools, toward insistence on performance in exchange for such money as the schools receive.

No one capable of correctly adding one and one suggests that money – for teachers, for books, for scientific equipment, for buildings – bears no relationship to educational attainment.Many teachers, as if we didn’t all acknowledge it, deserve a lot more money than they make. The point is that education unions, egged on frequently by school officials and editorial writers, more than suggest such a connection. They demand the taxpayers acknowledge it.

Higher public school funding, of course, isn’t merely burdensome for taxpayers. It’s diversionary. It deflects attention from – as Texans seem to suspect – our cultural and political reluctance to hold accountable those schools and teachers and principals who just plain don’t get the job done.

Not that “accountability” doesn’t present issues of its own. Texas, by calculation of the Brookings Institution, has relatively strong accountability standards (unlike, according to Brookings, “irresponsible” states like Minnesota, Maine, and Tennessee). There’s a difference, all the same, between merely setting standards and actually using them as prods to steady improvement. The Texas Education Agency reported Aug. 1 that 66.6 percent of school districts and 43 percent of campuses received the “academically acceptable” rating – a grade, in effect, of C. Thirty-seven districts and 217 campuses came in as flatly “unacceptable.”

No less a public figure than Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business – whose members depend on a predictable flow of competent recruits to the workplace – complained this summer about enforcement of the standards.

Hammond accused the Texas Education Agency of disingenuousness in setting standards with so many escape clauses that not to attain a particular benchmark requires some craft. Or some plain old-fashioned incompetence.

“For too long,” Hammond said at an Austin press conference, “the TEA has fostered an environment where number games and bureaucracy cast a shadow over public education. A third of our high school students cannot graduate high school in four years.

“Instead of focusing on the root causes of poor performance, TEA is lowering standards and manipulating statistics, which ultimately victimizes our children from receiving the type of education they richly deserve.”

It all suggests how much more there is to real improvement of the schools than simple recognition of their problems. And yet, when a clear majority of Texans profess to see accountability as the likeliest remedy for improvement, as contrasted with perhaps the least likely remedy, that of turning on the money spigots – well! Even an alchemist or two might be moved by the sight.

“Texas taxpayers, families, and – most importantly – students,” Hammond said, “deserve an education system that ensures our children are prepared to meet the challenges of college and the job market.”

A 24-karat appraisal, you might say. No alchemists needed or wanted.

William Murchison is a Senior Fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.