It’s complicated – How the public views school choice

A desire for choices is embedded in Americans’ collective DNA. Whether we’re choosing candidates in the voting booth, movies at the neighborhood multiplex or breakfast cereal in the supermarket, we expect to have options as our entitlement. No surprise then that when asked if parents and students should have their choice of school, the public overwhelmingly says “yes.” Yet a bit of drilling shows considerable distance between wanting choices to be available and the public’s willingness to take tax dollars away from the public system to provide them.

I recently dug into five polls taken in the last year, each of which asked respondents some variations of questions about school choice. As polling junkies know, opinion polls can differ according to the way the questions are asked or by the pollsters’ algorithms for weighting, among other factors. For this reason, rather than rely on a single poll, it’s more useful to look across polls in order to identify possible trends, in particular where responses to different polls point in the same direction.

Here’s what I found:

  • Americans like the idea of school choice. The American Federation of Children, a school choice advocacy group, conducts an annual survey of voters about their support for various choice policies. In 2018, a majority 63% reported favoring “the concept of school choice,” which the pollsters described as giving “parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs.” Yet when asked specifically about “school vouchers” support plummets to 47%.
  • The 2017 Education Next poll showed that nearly half of Americans — 45% — support universal vouchers when told they provide families with “wider choices” with “government helping to pay the tuition.” In contrast, the proposal to “use government funds to pay tuition of students who choose to attend private schools” is favored by only 28%.
  • The American Federation of Teachers took a different approach to school choice in their 2017 survey of parents by giving them an either/or proposition. Asked if they want “a good quality neighborhood school” or “more choices of schools,” parents overwhelmingly prefer the neighborhood school, 71% to 28%.
  • A 2017 AP/NORC poll on school choice elicited a similar response. 43% of Americans said they supported “tax-funded vouchers” for low-income students. However, when asked a follow up question — “what if public schools would receive less money?” only 22% said they still favored the idea.
  • For two decades, Phi Delta Kappan has asked a variation of this question: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” In its 2017 poll, its most recent, only 39% of the public favored the idea compared to 52% opposed. PDK added a new follow up question to the 2017 survey: “Some people say public funds should be used only to pay for the public schools that offer tuition-free education for all students. Others say parents should be able to direct some public funds to any school their child attends, whether public, private, or religious. This would cover the full cost of public school or the partial cost of private or religious schools.” When given this information, a full 61% say the money should be used in public schools only.

My take-away: the public has a favorable view of providing educational choices for families and their students, but overall prefer to have the public dollar stay in the public domain. As NSBA executive director and CEO, Tom Gentzel, puts it, “The public does not want to support two education systems.” The generally high approval ratings Americans give to public charter schools compared to vouchers underscores his point.

In truth, the public education system increasingly provides academic and programmatic options. In addition to charter schools, districts have developed magnet schools, allow for inter-/intra-districts transfers, and even created various pathways inside neighborhood school buildings. Earlier this year, CPE offered a snapshot of the amount of such choices in the public system, including our estimate that two-thirds of school-age students live in a district where they can attend a public school outside their attendance zone. Could our schools do more? Sure. But it would certainly make more sense to support their efforts to innovate, expand choice, and better serve individual students’ needs. After all, that is what the public wants.