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October 12, 2017

Survey says: How Americans feel about public schools and school choice

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.

Charter Schools


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.



Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,School Choice — Tags: , , , — Annie Hemphill @ 2:33 pm

September 6, 2013

The public and public schools in four charts

It’s September and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for competing polls about what Americans think about public education.  True to form, with all the asking — and in some cases, prodding — anyone can sift through the results and find support for their own agendas.  Like charter schools? We’ve got that covered. Don’t want school choice? We have that, too.  Here is my attempt to dig a little deeper into recent polls to uncover what the public is really telling us underneath the numbers.

I relied primarily on three national polls published over the last three months: Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup (PDK/Gallup, September 2013), Associated Press-NORC (AP/NORC, August 2013) and the American Federation of Teachers/Hart Research Associates (AFT/Hart, July 2013).  PDK and AFT are associations representing educators. Their reports should therefore be read with that lens in mind. Nonetheless, all three are associated with reputable pollsters giving them a level of credibility lacking in some other surveys conducted by interest groups. The PDK/Gallup has the longest history. Their recent poll was the partnership’s 45th release.

One of the most powerful findings comes from the AFT/Hart poll of public school parents. By a large margin, these parents look to public schools as the most vital institution contributing to the nation’s and their community’s future — far more than religious institutions, businesses, military or law enforcement (Chart 1). This shows that parents don’t just count on local schools to educate their own child. They want to see all public schools succeed in order to assure there is a healthy, vibrant society waiting when their child graduates and enters adult life.


This leads to the question, how well do public schools live up to these expectations? All three polls asked some version of “What do you think of American public schools?”  PDK/Gallup has asked this for several years, and the results have consistently shown that Americans are of two, contradictory minds. That is, the public reports a low opinion of public schools overall, but believes their local schools do a good job.  Obviously, both cannot be true.

The 2013 polls show the same ambivalence. When asked by PDK/Gallup to grade the nation’s schools, only 18 percent of the general public gave them an A or B. In contrast, 53 percent thought their local schools deserved these high grades. Interestingly, this represents a 6 percentage point increase since 1993. Public school parents were even more admiring; 71 percent gave their child’s school an A or B.

These findings are reflected in the AP/NORC poll of parents: only 38 percent rated U.S. public schools “excellent or good” compared to 64 percent who thought the same of their local elementary public schools (54 percent viewed local public secondary schools this highly). Note that the AP/NORC poll includes parents of both private and public school children.  About two-thirds of public school parents told the AFT/Hart pollsters they were very or fairly satisfied (see Chart 2).


Despite lingering doubts about the quality of public education nationally, these polls show that to know local public schools is to love them.  In addition to rating them highly, parents think that their child’s schooling is more rigorous than the education they had received (see Chart 3).


The picture gets more complicated when the topic turns to charter schools. But even here, one sees support for public schools. PDK/Gallup and AFT/Hart included several questions specifically about charters and choice. The PDK/Gallup was the most straightforward (see Chart 4). When asked if they favor or oppose charter schools, the general public favored charters by a ratio of 68 to 29 percent. A similar proportion said they would support opening charter schools in their district. A slight majority (52 percent) further thought public charter schools provided a better education.

AFT/Hart took another approach by presenting the questions as either/or propositions. Perhaps for this reason, the responses were more subtle. Public school parents were asked what they wanted more: good neighborhood schools or more choices of schools for their children. They overwhelmingly preferred neighborhood schools, 68 to 24 percent. They were also asked which approach would be a better way to improve education more generally: ensuring access to a good public school in the community, or opening more charter schools and providing more vouchers. Again, the local school won out, 77 to 20 percent.

It’s worth noting that the response to the last question was likely influenced by including vouchers — an idea that the public rejected by large margins in the PDK/Gallup poll. Even so, given the choice for themselves, it seems as though the public, and particularly parents, will prefer the neighborhood public school.


There is more reason to believe that what parents really want are good neighborhood schools. Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation recently conducted focus groups of parents to better understand their views of accountability and reform policies. The report, Will it be on the test?, explores a range of strategies, including parents’ views on charter schools and choice. While the authors, like PDK/Gallup, found general support for charters and choice, they also sensed frustration among parents who would prefer to see the same energy go toward improving traditional schools. They write:

[M]any parents seem to see sending their children to better schools elsewhere as a fallback solution, rather than their first choice. The better solution, any of them seem to say, would be to improve the quality of the neighborhood public schools in their own communities.

We agree.  We think charter schools can be effective laboratories for innovation, and would like to see the lessons of high-performing charters transfer to traditional schools. On the other hand, charter schools are not a reform strategy. Research shows that the high performers are the exception, not the rule. More, then, is no guarantee of better.

We also know that parents aren’t clamoring for more charter schools. These latest polls show that while the American public supports the idea of choice in principle, when it comes to their child and their community, their preferred choice is still the neighborhood school.


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