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Poll Finds Growing Support for School Choice

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While the nation's public schools continue to enjoy strong support, a growing number of people, especially African-Americans, favor private school choice, a new poll shows.

The 29th edition of the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitude Toward the Public Schools, released last week, does not use the term "vouchers." But one question asks whether respondents would favor a proposal in which the government paid all or part of the tuition for students who chose to attend nonpublic schools.

Forty-nine percent of the adults surveyed, up from 43 percent last year, said they would favor such a plan.

"People like the idea of choice," the poll's director, Lowell C. Rose, said at a news conference here.

Support was particularly strong among black respondents--62 percent of whom favored the plan, compared with 47 percent of whites--as well as young adults. Fifty-five percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who were surveyed backed vouchers, compared with 40 percent of those 50 and over.

"Certain groups feel schools have to be better," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic counsel to the House education committee. "[They] feel they have to get a better education, so they are much more in favor of these measures."

Blacks and whites differed in other areas as well. More than half of the black respondents--56 percent--prefer federal funding over other means for financing public schools, compared with just 26 percent of whites. And 87 percent of blacks believe choice within the public schools will improve achievement, compared with 64 percent of whites who hold that belief.

"Blacks feel the greatest need for improvement of public schools," Mr. Rose said. "They believe in public schools, but they also have the greatest stake in their improvement."

The poll, commissioned annually by the professional education group Phi Delta Kappa, based in Bloomington, Ind., also showed that 71 percent of Americans believe the focus of improvement efforts should be on reforming the existing public school system, rather than on seeking an alternative.

Reforming the Schools

Supplied with a list of 10 possible reforms, 81 percent of respondents assigned a "great deal or quite a lot" of importance to placing a computer in every classroom.

Other top-ranked reform strategies included establishing national standards for academic achievement (supported by 77 percent), moving persistent "troublemakers" into alternative schools (75 percent), and allowing families to choose a public school (73 percent).

While there was overwhelming support for standards, a smaller percentage of respondents, 57 percent, said they favored President Clinton's proposal for national tests of student achievement at two grade levels.

Since 1974, respondents have been asked to grade the public schools in their communities. Four in 10 awarded the public schools in their communities an A or B this year, as has been the case for the past 20 years.

And as has been the case since the question was first asked in 1981, about two in 10 assigned a grade of A or B to schools across the nation.

Black respondents thought relatively highly of the nation's schools, with 46 percent giving them an A or B.

The poll is based on phone interviews of 1,517 adults, including 1,017 parents of public school children, and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

For a copy of the poll, write to Phi Delta Kappa, P.O. Box 789, Bloomington, IN 47402, or phone (800) 766-1156. The minimum order for reprints of the published report is 25 copies for $10, and additional copies are available at 25 cents each.

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