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Violence, Discipline Top Public's School Concerns, Poll Finds

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Violence and poor discipline are the public's biggest concerns about public schools, a recently released survey shows.

Poor discipline has been the most frequently mentioned problem in the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on education, but, for the first time in the 26 years of the survey, the category "violence/fighting/gangs" tied for the top spot.

In this year's poll, both violence and discipline were mentioned by 18 percent of the 1,326 adults surveyed. The survey, released last month, is used to gauge the public's attitudes toward public schools.

Some segments of the population were more apt than respondents over all to rate violence as the biggest issue facing schools: 31 percent of nonwhites, 27 percent of urban residents, and 28 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds.

Lack of financial support and drug abuse, which topped the list last year, also have been common responses since the mid-1980's.

Officials of Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Poll cautioned that the public may be reacting more to extensive media coverage of school violence than to reality.

"Most of the schools in this country are a safe place to be," said Lowell C. Rose, the executive director of Phi Delta Kappa, a professional fraternity for educators and graduate education students.

On another issue, school choice, the poll suggests that sentiment for and against government tuition aid to students in nonpublic schools "has begun to crystallize," according to the authors.

Questions on Choice

They note that only 1 percent of the respondents this year had no opinion on such aid, compared with 11 percent who were undecided when a somewhat differently worded question was asked in 1991.

Fifty-four percent of this year's respondents oppose such aid, while 45 percent favor the idea.

The question was worded as follows: "A proposal has been made which would allow parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose. For those parents choosing nonpublic schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition. Would you favor or oppose this proposal in your state?"

In 1991, when 50 percent of respondents favored, and 39 percent opposed, allowing government aid to be used by students to attend nonpublic schools, the question read: "In some nations the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his education. The parents can 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?"

The 1991 wording was also used on seven other P.D.K./Gallup polls from 1970 to 1987.

Last year's poll--which asked, "Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?"--found 74 percent opposed, 24 percent in favor, and 2 percent undecided. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993.)

Support for Reform

The poll also found that:

  • Sentiment on the idea of letting private companies manage public schools is split, with 45 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed, while charter schools rallied a majority of support at 54 percent.
  • The public supports many current reform initiatives, such as less traditional ways of grading students and the setting of achievement goals, without specifying how schools should meet those goals.
  • About three-quarters of the public thinks that a standardized national curriculum and standardized national exams are "very" or "quite" important.

The poll suggests that more people are involved in local school activities and reform efforts than at any time over the past decade.

The margin of sampling error for the poll is about 3 percent for responses involving the total sample.

Copies are available for $10 for a minimum of 25 copies (additional copies are 25 cents each) from Phi Delta Kappa, P.O. Box 789, Bloomington, Ind. 47402; (800) 766-1156.

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