Poll: Americans Like Public School

ByMaria Durand

Aug. 22, 2000 -- The nation’s public schools aren’t so bad after all, and people would rather spend more money improving public education than funding voucher programs to send children to private institutions, a new poll released today says.

The annual poll, conducted by Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving public education, says that 70 percent of parents with children in public school give their children’s school a grade of A or B — an improvement of four percentage points from the survey’s findings in 1999.

The poll, which surveyed more than 1,000 people by phone in June, also says that just under half of the rest of the country also gives public schools positive marks.

The authors of the poll say that the generally positive feelings people have for public education translate to widespread belief that more effort and resources should be focused on improving public schools, finding that twice as many of those surveyed favor that option to creating an alternative system.

Specifically, the poll says, three-quarters of those polled say they prefer improving the public system, compared to 22 percent who said they would like to see vouchers to use public money for private school. The survey also said it found diminishing support for charter schools — schools paid for and run by the public, but set up independent of existing districts and curricula — with 47 percent of the public opposing the concept versus 42 percent supporting it.

On issues of what’s wrong with schools, the authors of the poll say people’s priorities have changed, saying lack of financial support was cited as this year’s biggest problem, as opposed to lack of discipline last year.

Most Americans also agree that a teacher’s salary should be tied to her or his students’ achievement, the poll says.

Record Enrollment

The study comes a day after federal education officials announced that total U.S. enrollment in elementary and secondary school would reach a record 53 million students this year, and as both presidential candidates have promised to make education a central issue of their campaigns.

A series of ads hit the airways throughout the nation this week outlining Gov. George Bush’s priorities to improve education.

Bush, who hasn’t used the word “vouchers” in his campaign, has said he supports giving parents federal aid for use toward private schools as well as innovative education, something Gore opposes but which vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman has supported in the past.

Gore, who in 1992 voted against a bill to give low-income parents money to enroll their children at private or parochial schools, has said greater resources should be dedicated to repairing the public school system.

Also, a number of states — including California, Michigan and Washington — have some kind of voucher or charter school questions in their ballots this year.

Public education advocates point to the survey as evidence Americans still believe in public education and want resources channeled there.

“This is reliable evidence that Americans understand it will take additional resources to meet our nation’s goals in public education improvement,” said Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association. “Parental involvement, reducing class size, enhancing safety, and getting and keeping good teachers represents a balanced, common-sense approach to better schools.”

A Self-Serving Survey?

But other school reform advocates say they don’t trust the results of the survey

“This survey is not unlike the ones they have done in the past in which questions are geared to solicit answers they want,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. “They represent groups that support status quo and not reform and it is not valid gauge of people’s attitudes toward education.”

Others questioned the results on charter schools. Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington said it is true people may not understand exactly what the difference is between standard schools and their charter cousins, but he said people tend to respond differently to charter schools when asked about their own children’s education.

”When the chips are down, parents want to choose where to send their children,” Hill said

The poll also asked adults with children and without children in public school who they would vote for solely on the issue of improving education.

People with children in public schools favored Bush, with 41 percent saying they support him, while 37 percent said they support Gore. But totals for both adults without children in public schools and overall totals were too close to call.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.