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Gallup Poll Finds Wide Support for Tuition Vouchers

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WASHINGTON--Seven out of 10 Americans say they would back a government-supported voucher system under which parents could send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice, a Gallup poll released last week indicates.

But the level of support for such a system drops to 61 percent when respondents are told that it would be paid for by using "some of the tax money now going to public schools,'' found the survey, which was commissioned by the National Catholic Educational Association and released at a press conference here.

The telephone poll of a national sample of 1,239 American adults was conducted by the Gallup Organization between July 3 and July 30. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

"We feel this is really good news,'' said Frank X. Savage, an executive director of the N.C.E.A., which represents more than 200,000 educators serving 7.6 million students at all levels of Catholic education. "The American people are saying 'yes' to parental choice in education.''

Public school groups were less enthusiastic about the findings.

Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said in an interview that while a voucher system may "sound great,'' it "simply is not a viable notion.''

Such plans, she argued, would raise "serious separation-of-church-and-state problems,'' benefit relatively few children, and drain badly needed funds from public schools.

Shift in Opinion Seen

The poll's finding of strong support for government-financed voucher systems appears to reflect a major shift in opinion from just one year ago.

In 1991, when the Gallup firm asked the same question about vouchers in the annual survey it conducts for the Phi Delta Kappa education honor society, only 50 percent of the respondents said they supported the concept.

Sister Catherine T. McNamee, the president of the N.C.E.A., said the change is "startling.''

"I think people have become much more familiar with the notion during the past year,'' she said at the press conference, citing expanded media coverage of the concept and the adoption of some experimental programs.

The Bush Administration claimed some credit for the apparent change in opinion and used the survey results to bolster its case for a federal voucher demonstration program.

In a written statement distributed at the press conference, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said the change in opinion was the result of President Bush's "consistent leadership'' on the parental-choice issue.

Mr. Alexander challenged Congress to "listen'' to the public and enact the Administration's proposed "G.I. bill for children,'' which would give $1,000 vouchers to low- and middle-income parents in selected cities to pay for tuition in any public or private school they chose.

"Give parents the consumer power to change our schools,'' Mr. Alexander urged lawmakers.

Government sponsorship of private-school choice programs has been a frequent topic of debate during this year's Presidential election campaign, with Mr. Bush strongly in favor of the idea and his Democratic challenger, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, strongly opposed.

Sister Catherine said the N.C.E.A. hopes "that both political parties will pay strict attention to what the American people are saying in this poll.''

"It should not be just a partisan issue, it should be an American issue,'' she added.

Support Among Minorities

The poll found high levels of support for vouchers in principle among minority groups.

Eighty-six percent of African-American respondents said they supported vouchers, the highest favorable rating among all groups studied. Support was also expressed by 84 percent of Hispanics.

When asked whether tax money now going to public schools should be used to pay for vouchers, 76 percent of the black respondents said yes, as did 67 percent of the Hispanics.

"The civil-rights issue of the 1990's is quality education for all,'' Robert J. Kealey, executive director of the N.C.E.A.'s elementary schools department, said at the press conference. "The cry of the African-American community and the Hispanic-American community has become a roar.''

The pattern of strong support for vouchers in general, but somewhat less support for plans that would divert revenues from public schools, was apparent among other groups as well. For example:

  • Eighty percent of Roman Catholics support vouchers in general; 70 percent support the use of public-school revenues for such plans.
  • 78 percent of parents with children in school support the concept, but only 68 percent support the diversion of funds from public schools.

Shifting funds from public schools was also backed by 78 percent of the respondents with children in Catholic or private schools and 73 percent of those between the ages of 18 to 34, but by only 47 percent of those 55 and older.

The poll also produced findings that appear to challenge the argument of school-choice opponents that parents do not have enough information about school alternatives to be able to make wise choices for their children.

Fifty-three percent of all the respondents to the poll said they had such information, as did 60 percent of those with school-age children and 80 percent of those with children in Catholic or private schools.

The poll also found that 59 percent of the respondents said all families should be eligible for a voucher program if it is supported with tax dollars. Twenty-seven percent said only poor and moderate-income families should be eligible, and 10 percent said only poor families should benefit.

The poll also asked respondents if they would support public funding for choice programs that would benefit church-affiliated schools if the U.S. Superme Court ruled that such programs were constitutional. Sixty-four percent of the general population would favor such a plan, the poll found.

In a similar vein to the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll, the N.C.E.A. survey asked respondents to assign a letter grade to public schools and Catholic schools. Sixty-two percent gave Catholic schools an A or a B but only 24 percent gave public schools such high marks.

Copies of the executive summary of the study, "The People's Poll on Schools and School Choice: A New Gallup Survey,'' can be obtained from the N.C.E.A., 1077 30th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007; (202) 337-6232.

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