Between May and September, four organizations released the results from their surveys asking Americans about K-12 education policies. The four surveys by NORC/AP, Education Next, PDK and the American Teachers Federation (AFT), polled different participants but all asked questions about people’s opinion of public education, charter schools and vouchers. The NORC/AP and PDK poll gathered their data from a random sample of American households. The AFT and Education Next surveys both gathered data from parents and the Education Next also included teachers. The data from the surveys agreed on certain issues, like the quality of public schools, but the questions about vouchers and charter schools showed people’s difference of opinion and lack of information about these issues. This is an attempt to point out areas where these surveys agreed and disagreed to shed light on the public’s broader opinion about public schools and education policies. However, one overarching theme emerges—Americans, overall, like the idea of choice but still look to their local neighborhood schools as their first choice.
Grading Public Schools
All four polls indicate that Americans have conflicting opinions about public schools. They report having a low opinion of public schools when asked about their overall quality from a national level, but then highly rate their local public schools. These results have been consistent since the 1970s in the PDK poll.
Another consistent finding is the particularly high rating public school parents give for the public school where their child attends. In 2017, 15% of public school parents gave their local public school an “A” in the PDK poll, which is the highest percentage in 20 years. This year, at least 65% of parents in all four surveys praised their neighborhood public schools by giving them an “A” or “B” rating, or noting that they are of good or excellent quality. The Education Next poll was the only one that collected responses specifically from teachers. Teachers opinions mirrored the parents rating in the poll, showing a higher opinion for local public schools than public schools on a national level. Overall, people are satisfied with their local public schools and the people who are most involved in public schools, parents and teachers, have the highest opinion of these institutions.
Public opinion about charter schools is less definitive between the three different polls, PDK, NORC/AP and AFT, but basically shows how support shifts when questions are asked differently. According to the NORC/AP survey, more participants support opening more charter schools compared to those who are opposed. The Education Next and AFT polls show a different side of the argument. The Education Next poll doesn’t show a big difference between the number of people that are for and against setting up more charter schools. But the gap between support and opposition widens slightly when parents and teachers are polled. Forty percent of teachers support opening more charter schools, but 51% oppose the idea. Teachers represent the biggest gap on this question and the only group that reported more opposing than supporting charter schools.
The data from the AFT survey paint a much different picture, and is likely a result of the wording. Unlike EdNext and AP/NORC who both asked about support for charter schools generally, AFT asked about respondents in terms of spending. AFT found that only 32% of public school parents approve of reducing spending on regular public schools and using the funds to increase spending on charter schools.
The questions in the Education Next and NORC/AP poll also include a brief definition of a charter school, whereas the AFT question does not. Education Next and NORC/AP indicate that many people still do not have a strong opinion one way or the other on charter schools, with over a quarter of respondents neither supporting nor opposing the formation of charter schools. This suggests that policymakers need to do a better job of educating the public about charter schools and their policy implications.
The polling data also show discrepancies on the issue of vouchers, which again is a likely result of different wording. The Education Next poll showed a higher percentage of overall respondents supporting vouchers for all students, as well as, for low-income families specifically. More parents in this survey also supported vouchers for all students and for low-income students. Teachers were the only group with a majority opposing both types of vouchers. The NORC/AP survey also showed greater support than opposition towards vouchers. This was true for survey participants overall as well as for African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians. However, the results from the AFT and PDK poll show the opposite when the question involves spending money on either public schools or vouchers. Eighty-six percent of public school parents in the AFT poll agreed that a higher priority should be paid towards investing in neighborhood public schools over vouchers. In PDK, 52% opposed using public dollars to help children attend private school. When given an option of using funds only on public schools or using some to help students attend any school “public, private or religious,” 61% of respondents wanted all the dollars to stay in the public domain.
Similar to the questions about charter schools, the wording of the questions about vouchers can have an effect on the responses. In the surveys that had more support for vouchers, all of the questions mentioned the word “choice”, which suggests that people support the idea of choice for choice sake. However, the questions in the polls that had a majority opposed clearly indicated the separation between spending money on public schools or vouchers.
It is clear that people like their public schools. This is not new. The majority of people have ranked their public schools highly for more than three decades. The results around different types of school choice are less one-sided, but even those numbers may be misleading by the public’s lack of awareness about the implications of policies concerning choice. For example, the NORC/AP survey data continued to show more people supporting charter schools and voucher programs, but that may not be the case. The researchers report that the majority of parents want to keep their children in school in their own neighborhood with 67% of Americans saying “preference should be given to children living in a school’s catchment, with children living outside that area given a lower chance of admission.” This shows that most people still rely on their neighborhood public schools and want them to be of high quality.