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Poll Finds Rising Concern About School Finance

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Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the financial crunch on the public schools, and they look to the federal government to alleviate the problem "if and when money from Washington is available," reports a new public-opinion survey by the pollster George Gallup.

The Fourteenth Annual Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools reveals that "lack of proper financial support" is a major problem for schools. Twenty-two percent of those interviewed said it was one of the biggest problems in their communities; 12 percent of those polled last year said so.

Federal funds for education have also assumed a higher priority, the survey said. Public-school education "should be given first consideration" when federal money is distributed, said 21 percent of those interviewed. When the question about federal priorities was asked previously, in 1975, health care was ranked first.

Tables detailing the resultsof the poll begin on page 10.

"If Congress listened to the American people, public-school education would receive far more money from the federal government than it now does," the survey concluded.

The poll, conducted by Mr. Gallup's Public Opinion Surveys, Inc., asked 1,557 adults their opinions on the quality of their local schools, on controversial issues such as public versus private schools and textbook selection, and on priorities in the school curriculum.

The poll was sponsored by the Phi Delta Kappa education fraternity and appears in the September issue of its magazine, Phi Delta Kappan.

One finding of the poll mirrors the position taken by many of those engaged in the education profession: Although the public supports the concept of increased federal support for public education, "a majority of U.S. citizens would like the federal government to have even less influence in the future ... in determining the educational pro-grams of the local public schools," the survey said.

Fifty-four percent of those interviewed favored less federal influence over the schools, while 28 percent said Washington should have more influence.

Although the public's concern over educational finances increased during the past year, the Gallup organization found once again that citizens perceive "a lack of discipline" as the main problem confronting the public schools. That finding corresponds to responses given in the Gallup polls on education in 13 of the last 14 years.

This year, for the first time, the Gallup organization asked those interviewed, "How serious is the problem of discipline in the local schools?"

"Approximately 7 persons in 10 regard discipline as a 'very serious' or 'fairly serious' problem," according to the survey. "Only 2 in 10 say it is 'not too serious' or 'not at all serious.' It is significant that parents of children attending school--presumably those who are in the best position to know--hold virtually the same views as the general public."

Differences in Discipline

When respondents were asked to specify what they meant by "discipline," 54 percent said "obeying rules/regulations." That opinion differs from the perception of discipline in the minds of school administrators, who "are more likely to think of discipline problems as absenteeism, vandalism, and similar behavior," the poll found.

Another 49 percent of citizens surveyed described discipline as "authority/control by teachers" or "respect for teachers." Discipline problems were also blamed, by 63 percent of respondents, for driving public-school teachers out of the classroom.

Drug abuse in the schools is perceived as an increasing concern, the poll found. Twenty percent of those surveyed listed it as one of the biggest problems of the public schools, up from 15 percent last year.

The poll reported less concern about busing and integration than was found last year, however. Six percent of this year's respondents cited it as a major problem, compared to 10 percent in 1981.

The reason for the decrease, in the opinion of one observer, has much to do with public awareness of the anti-busing policies of the Reagan Administration.

"This Administration has definitely expressed its view that busing is the remedy of last resort," said an aide to J. Bennett Johnston, the Louisiana Democrat who is a firm opponent of school busing. "You could conclude that reduced enforcement action [by the federal Justice Department] seeking busing as a principal means to desegregate has resulted in a reduction in fears [of busing] in many communities." The aide asked not to be identified.

Despite worries about the security--financial and otherwise--of the public schools, Americans this year gave their local schools about the same ratings as they did in 1981. Eight percent of those polled gave their local schools an "A" rating, 29 percent a "B," 33 percent a ''C," 14 percent a "D," and 5 percent a failing grade. Eleven percent had no opinion.

The Gallup pollsters also found, as in previous years, that parents with children in public schools tended to grade those schools higher than persons with no children in the schools. And parents continue to give their own local schools higher grades than they do public schools in general.

Private-School Question

Because considerable attention has been paid of late to the question of whether private schools are superior to public schools, the Gallup organization included a question related to that issue in the 1982 poll. Parents of public-school children were asked whether they would prefer to send their eldest children to private schools if they could do so without paying tuition.

Although nearly half of the parents--47 percent--said they would stick with the public schools, 45 percent said they would switch to a private school. When asked for their reasons for preferring private schools, the parents most frequently answered that private schools have "higher standards of education" (28 percent), "better discipline" (27 percent), and "more individual attention" (21 percent).

The editors of Phi Delta Kappan, in a note included in the poll results, pointed out that because none of the tuition tax-credit proposals now before the Congress guarantees free tuition, "answers to the questions asked by the Gallup Organization should not be construed as supporting the tax-credit idea."

Gary L. Jones, acting undersecretary of education, said he interpreted the responses to mean that the parents willing to switch "may be telling us that there are some aspects of the private school that parents like--such as discipline, values, and small class size--that can also be provided at the public-school level."

Turning to another controversial topic, the Gallup pollsters asked, ''Who do you feel should have the most influence in the selection of books for use in public-school classrooms and school libraries. ..?"

Teachers, 42 percent of the respondents said, should have the most influence. Next in line were parents (18 percent), principals and administrators (15 percent), and school boards (13 percent).

Dorothy C. Massie of the National Education Association, said the respondents' choice of teachers "suggests that there's more trust in the education professionals than the critics of public education would have us believe. People who work with students--the teachers--should have the most influence over textbook selection."

Terry Todd, chairman of the Stop Textbook Censorship Committee of the Eagle Forum--a national network of politically conservative parents--said she believed that those who trust teachers to select textbooks may be unaware that "there has been considerable change in education in the last 20 to 30 years."

"Parents," she said, "have traditionally trusted the educators, and many educators deserve our trust, but many educators do not deserve our trust. Those parents who are aware of that change and who recognize the philosophical differences prevalent in teaching materials are going to want to retain the choice for themselves."

Other highlights of the survey include:

Curriculum changes. Approximately 40 percent of those polled said the school curriculum in their communities already meets today's needs, compared with 36 percent who said that there was a need for change. Of those who felt that change was needed, 26 percent called for more emphasis on basic education, 14 percent for more practical instruction, and 11 percent for more vocational education. Responses to the question in the 1982 poll roughly paralleled those given to the same question in 1970.

School budget savings. Public views on this topic have not changed significantly since 1971, according to the survey. More than 80 percent of the respondents were opposed to reductions in special services for the handicapped. Seventy-six percent were opposed both to cutting teacher salaries by a set percentage and to increasing class sizes. Reducing the number of administrative personnel (71 percent) and the number of counselors on the school staff (42 percent) were most often mentioned as the preferred methods of paring down the school budget.

Extending the school year. More than 50 percent of those surveyed opposed extending the school year by one month in their communities. And 55 percent said they were opposed to extending the school day by one hour. Approximately 50 percent of the residents of cities with a population greater than 1 million, however, said they would favor both moves, compared with approximately 28 percent of respondents from cities with populations smaller than 2,500.

Special instruction. Approximately 42 percent of all respondents were in favor of an increase in public spending for students with learning problems. Another 19 percent said public schools should also spend more on programs for the gifted and talented. In both cases, however, the largest percentage of persons surveyed said that the same amount of money should be spent on "average" as on exceptional students.

Teachers' negotiations. Seventy-nine percent of those polled favored compulsory arbitration in cases where an agreement cannot be reached between a teachers' union and the local school board. In 1975, the last time the Gallup pollsters asked that question, 84 percent of the respondents answered similarly.

Education and success. Four out of five persons questioned in this year's survey said education is extremely important to a person's future success. In fact, said the pollsters, there has been no statistically significant change in responses to this question during the past 10 years.

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