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Support for Private School Vouchers Is on the Increase, Gallup Poll Reports

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A growing proportion of the American public approves of the idea of allowing children to attend private schools at public expense, though most people remain opposed, a new poll suggests.

The 28th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of attitudes toward public schools reports that 36 percent of those polled favored "allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense," up from 33 percent last year and 25 percent in 1993. While most respondents--61 percent--said they were opposed, that proportion was down from nearly three-quarters in 1993.

This year, for the first time in the PDK/Gallup Poll, the concept of private schooling paid for with public funds won favor among a majority of one of the poll's demographic groups: parents of children in nonpublic schools. Sixty percent of such parents polled said they would approve, compared with about 45 percent in past polls. Opposition to the idea has eroded even among public school parents and those with no children in school, the poll shows. (See chart.)

The national telephone poll, conducted by the Gallup Organization in May and released here last week, surveyed 1,329 adults, and has a margin of error of roughly plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Thirty-two percent of the sample had children in public school. The report was commissioned by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional education group based in Bloomington, Ind.

The pollsters asked variedly worded questions about the fiercely debated topic of using public money to pay for private schooling, with different versions yielding greater or smaller majorities rejecting the idea.

When asked if they favored or opposed allowing parents to send their children to "any public, private, or church-related school they choose" and for parents "choosing nonpublic schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition," 54 percent opposed such funding, while 43 percent favored it. Those numbers were almost unchanged from two years ago.

When asked their opinion on replacing the public school system with a system of private schools for which they could use "vouchers paid for by the government," the respondents rejected the idea by 69 percent to 25 percent.

If a local school-choice program offered a $3,500 voucher, 54 percent of parents of public school students said they would keep their children in the same schools they now attend, 19 percent said they would choose a church-related school, and 18 percent said they would choose another kind of private school.

Preserving Order

As they have since 1974, about four in 10 respondents--43 percent this year--awarded the public schools in their communities a grade of A or B. Public school parents seem even happier with their community schools than they did a year ago; 57 percent assigned public schools an A or B, up from 49 percent in 1995.

Public school parents and people living in the East are most likely to give their schools one of the top two grades. Blacks, people younger than 30, those living in the West, and city dwellers are the least likely to give local public schools an A or B.

For the first time, the poll asked respondents to grade nonpublic schools, which serve about 11 percent of the nation's elementary and secondary students. Americans rated their local nonpublic schools higher than their public schools. A 63 percent majority gave nonpublic schools in their communities an A or B. The nonpublic schools in the nation as a whole earned A's and B's from 57 percent of those surveyed.

Based on responses to another first-time question, people place great emphasis on preserving order in schools. Ninety-two percent said troublemakers should be removed from class. A majority also favored employing school security guards, using dogs to sniff out drugs at school, and conducting random tests of students for use of illegal drugs.

But this year, "drug abuse," at 16 percent, edged out "lack of discipline" by 1 percentage point to become the most frequently mentioned "biggest problem" facing local public schools.

Parties Rated

Questions about political parties and public education also made their debut in this year's poll. Forty-four percent of respondents said the Democratic Party was more interested than the Republican Party in improving public education, compared with 27 percent who said the reverse. And 49 percent said President Clinton had done more than the Republican Congress to improve public education since taking office.

The survey's authors said the opinions about political parties and education may be explained in part by congressional Republicans' emphasis on achieving a balanced federal budget. By 64 percent to 25 percent, poll respondents said it was more important over the next five years for the federal government to improve education than it was to balance the budget.

Poll officials said it was a coincidence that the long-planned release here of what turned out to be Democrat-friendly results came at the same time as the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The poll also revealed misperceptions that the public has about trends in public education. For example, 64 percent of those polled believe incorrectly that dropout rates are higher today than they were 25 years ago.

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