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Lack of Discipline Tops Public's Concerns About Schools

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Violence among students no longer tops Americans' list of concerns about public schools, though discipline remains a primary source of unease, a recently released survey shows.

Fifteen percent of the 1,311 Americans surveyed during May and June for the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on education said the biggest problem their local public schools face is a lack of discipline, followed by 11 percent who cited a lack of proper financial support.

Only 9 percent said fighting, violence, and gangs were the top concern. That represents a substantial departure from last year's poll, in which "lack of discipline" and "fighting/violence/gangs" tied for the top concern, with 18 percent each.

The poll also asked respondents to assign letter grades both to the schools in their community and nationwide. This year, 41 percent gave their local schools an A or a B, while only 20 percent gave the highest marks to schools across the country. Participants gave similar responses last year: 44 percent of the 1994 respondents gave their local schools an A or a B, while 22 percent gave the nation's schools such marks.

Among the reasons most frequently given by respondents for giving their local schools better grades, 79 percent said those schools "place more emphasis on high academic achievement." That response was followed closely by "better discipline and less crime and violence" and "fewer racial and ethnic incidents," which were each cited by 74 percent of those who gave their local schools a better grade than they gave schools nationwide.

Such differences in Americans' perceptions of their own schools and those of the country as a whole--a staple of the annual Gallup survey--raise questions about how those perceptions came about, said John F. Jennings, one of the authors of the survey.

"I think the news media is painting a blacker picture of the schools than is true," said Mr. Jennings, the director of the Center on National Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit education-information organization.

National Role Questioned

The poll also revealed an apparent contradiction: While a majority of respondents would like to scale back the federal government's role in education, they remain supportive of such national initiatives as the push for higher academic standards.

For example, asked whether the federal government should have more or less influence in "determining the educational programs of local public schools," 64 percent said the federal government should have less influence, and the same percentage said local governments should have more.

Yet, 65 percent of respondents said they would support requiring students to pass standardized national examinations for promotion from grade to grade.

Split on Block Grant

The survey also asked respondents whether they back a proposed block grant that would "reduce the amount of money in the federal school lunch program in exchange for giving the states more say in how the money is spent."

The respondents were divided : 45 percent said they supported such a block grant, while 47 percent said they opposed it.

The U.S. House in March passed a welfare-reform bill that would replace current school-meals programs with a lump-sum payment, or block grant--a plan that Republican proponents say would still provide for increased funding. A Senate version of the bill, to be considered this month, does not contain any such provision.

Among the poll's other findings:

  • Eighty-four percent of respondents said the federal government should foot the bill when school districts are required by federal law to provide special services for physically and mentally handicapped students.
  • While 69 percent supported public school choice, only 33 percent favored "allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense."
  • 71 percent favored a constitutional amendment to allow spoken prayer in the public schools. But if given a choice between spoken prayer and a moment of silence, 70 percent would prefer a moment of silence.

This year's poll is the 27th annual survey by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional fraternity for educators and graduate education students, based in Bloomington, Ind., and the Gallup Organization.

The poll's margin of error is about 3 percent.

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