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.