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Surveys at Odds On Public's View Of School Choice

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Three-quarters of the American public opposes sending children to private schools at public expense, a poll released by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup Organization last week has found.

But the findings on school choice in the education fraternity's annual survey on attitudes toward public schools may be less significant in themselves, analysts suggest, than in what they say about the usefulness of polling as a way of gauging public sentiment on the issue.

While they were quickly seized on by opponents of private school choice, the results also generated new doubts about the validity of one-time "snapshots'' of public views on vouchers.

As an issue on which many people feel torn between worthy but possibly conflicting goals--giving parents a choice and protecting the public schools--poll results on vouchers can be heavily influenced by the types of questions used.

The P.D.K. poll findings, for example, were in striking contrast to a poll conducted last year, also by Gallup, for the National Catholic Educational Association. In that survey, the returns on school choice were nearly the opposite of this year's findings. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)

In the N.C.E.A. survey, some 70 percent of respondents said 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.

The level of support dropped to 61 percent when the 1,239 respondents were told that some tax money for public schools would be diverted to set up such a system.

'The Devil of the Survey'

Pollsters and educators who follow school choice attributed the radical difference in results to the way the questions were phrased in the surveys.

In the P.D.K./Gallup poll, the 1,306 respondents were asked if they "favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.''

The N.C.E.A. poll, by contrast, provided some background on the voucher issue before before posing this question: "In some nations, the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his education. The parents can then send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose. This is called the 'voucher system.' Would you like to see such an idea adopted in this country?''

A similar N.C.E.A. question on choice explained in detail how some tax money earmarked for public schools would be used to allow parents to send their child to any school, regardless of its affiliation.

"I think that the wording of the questions would have a great bearing on the responses,'' said Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of the New York City-based Public Agenda Foundation, a group working to increase public involvement in school reform.

"This is the devil of the survey questionnaire,'' she said.

Other public-opinion polls on school choice have been criticized recently for wording that could slant the way respondents answered.

For instance, a critical study on school choice written last year by Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, was attacked by some scholars and educators who said the report's poll contained loaded questions aimed at evoking a negative response. (See Education Week, Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, 1992.)

Mr. Boyer, who concluded that most public school parents do not favor school choice, defended his study as a balanced analysis of the pros and cons of such a system.

Similar criticisms have been leveled at the P.D.K./Gallup and N.C.E.A. surveys.

Freedom and Taxpayer Burden

In the new poll--which also found that 65 percent of the public favors choice when it is confined to public schools--the question on choice including private schools implies "abandoning the [public school] system,'' Ms. Wadsworth said.

"If you pose private or parochial versus public, it offends people's sense of real opportunities for everyone through the public schools,'' she remarked.

In addition, the polls differ markedly in the amount of control that they portray the new system as giving to respondents, said Amy Stuart Wells, an assistant professor of educational studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

By asking the adults polled how they would direct their money, Ms. Wells noted, the N.C.E.A. survey plays on the traditions of "rugged individualism and freedom of choice.''

The P.D.K./Gallup school-choice question, on the other hand, employs "a more responsible way of wording by framing it in terms of taxpayer burden,'' she contended.

But both Ms. Wells, who recently completed a book on choice and voucher plans in the United States, and Ms. Wadsworth added that even questions that are carefully worded can be misleading.

Terms such as choice and voucher have been used so freely, Ms. Wells explained, that people cannot always make distinctions between plans.

Gallup's pollsters have acknowledged the difficulties in measuring public sentiment toward school choice.

As it relates to all types of schools, choice "is a very complicated issue,'' said Alec M. Gallup, the firm's co-chairman of the board.

"I don't think it was presented very well'' in either poll, Mr. Gallup added.

Giving Good Marks

On other issues, the P.D.K./Gallup survey found a marked increase in the number of respondents who gave the public schools in their community an A or B grade.

This year, 47 percent of those polled gave good marks to their local schools, compared with 40 percent in 1992.

The 1993 level was the highest since 1974, when 48 percent passed their schools with flying colors.

But, as in years past, respondents gave the nation's public schools as awhole fairly low ratings. Only 19 percent of the public awarded A's or B's to the schools.

The biggest obstacle facing the public school system, according to 21 percent of the respondents, is a "lack of financial support.'' Other problems cited were drug abuse, lack of discipline, and violence and gang activity.

In the 25-year history of the survey, discipline has been listed most often as the number-one problem for public schools. During the late 1980's and early 1990's, however, drug abuse and lack of financial support captured most of the responses.

After identifying lack of financial support as the schools' primary obstacle, nine out of 10 respondents said more should be done to improve the quality of schools in poorer communities and more than two-thirds indicated that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to accomplish this.

In addition, nearly 90 percent of respondents said funding should be spread equally among wealthy and poor school districts.

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