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Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Vouchers, Charters A Mystery to Most

Vouchers, Charters A Mystery to Most

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Don't put too much stock in polls on vouchers and charter schools, the latest poll on those subjects warns.

Most Americans—even parents in places where private school vouchers and charter schools are well-established—don't really understand those alternatives to regular public education, according to Public Agenda, the nonpartisan opinion-research group that released the findings last week.

For More Information

"On Thin Ice: How Advocates and Opponents Could Misread the Public's Views on Vouchers and Charter Schools" will be available online until Dec. 2 at publicagenda.org/
PDFsto re/PDFLogin.cfm
(registration required), or call (212) 686-6610.
Read results of the poll, "All for All: Strengthening Community Involvement for All Students," at list.publiceducation.o rg/
survey/result s.htm
.

"While the expert debate is very crisp and very well-defined, the public's views are much more uncertain," said Deborah Wadsworth, the executive director of the New York City-based group, which conducted the survey with funding from the Charles A. Dana Foundation. "If experts and policymakers are looking at survey data and saying, 'Oh, there's a lot of support for this alternative, or there's a lot of resistance,' this study is saying, 'Be wary, this is not thought through.'"

In other Public Agenda surveys on education topics such as standards and accountability, curriculum, safety and discipline in schools, and parental involvement, the respondents were generally more knowledgeable about the issues, Ms. Wadsworth added.

Taxpayer- funded voucher programs currently running in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Florida provide tuition money to families of low-income children or children who attend failing public schools to switch to private schools or public schools outside their neighborhoods. Charter schools, now operating in 32 states and the District of Columbia, are publicly funded but largely independent of the regulations that govern most public schools.

Survey Highlights
Public Agenda surveyed 1,200 members of the public, including 394 parents of school-age children, on vouhcers, charter schools, and related issues. Among the results:
  • Sixty-three percent of the general public, 66 percent of parents, and 60 percent of parents of school children in voucher communities say they know "very little" or "nothing" about school vouchers and how they work.
  • Eighty-one percent of the general public, 79 percent of parents, and 52 percent of parents of school children in charter communities say they know "very little" or "nothing" about charter schools.
  • After parents were provided with definitions of vouchers and charter schools, 70 percent said they would definitely use or seriously consider using vouchers; 54 percent said the same about charter schools.
  • Fifty-two percent of the public say private schools in their local areas "generally provide a better education" than local public schools do; 19 percent say public schools are better.
  • Sixty-two percent of the public say the nation's public schools "have some good things about them, but they need major change"; 19 percent say they're "doing pretty well and need little change"; and 16 percent say they "have so much wrong with them that we need to create a whole new system altogether."

Proponents of such programs say they give children much-needed opportunities to improve their education and also create competition that ultimately spurs regular public schools to do a better job. Opponents question whether they actually result in higher student academic achievement and say they undermine the ability of regular public schools to improve by diverting public funds away from them. The inclusion of religious schools in voucher programs also raises constitutional issues.

Public Agenda surveyed 1,200 members of the public, including 394 parents of school-age children, by telephone in June, as well as 208 parents in communities with vouchers and charter schools. The group's report, titled "On Thin Ice," says policymakers are walking on ice that could collapse under their feet if they look to opinion polls for proof of public sentiment for or against vouchers and charter schools.

But the report also points out that once those concepts are explained to people, they say they support them.

Out of the Loop

Among the most striking findings is that parents in Cleveland and Milwaukee are poorly informed about vouchers.

Among the most striking findings is that parents in Cleveland and Milwaukee are poorly informed about vouchers. Vouchers have been in place in those cities for most of this decade and have received intense media coverage and attention in the courts. (Cleveland's program is the target of an ongoing lawsuit, while Milwaukee's has withstood court challenges.)

Yet 60 percent of parents in the two cities said they knew "very little" or "nothing" about vouchers, according to the Public Agenda survey. Seventy-five percent said they needed to learn more about them before they could form an opinion.

"So much for vouchers being driven by parental demand," said Alex Molnar, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who opposes vouchers.

He maintained that while supporters of the program in Milwaukee say that parents are clamoring for them, "the demand for vouchers and now for charter schools is almost wholly the creation of a well-financed, right-wing policy apparatus.

"But both an opponent and a proponent of vouchers had another explanation for the survey results—a possible failure of policymakers and school leaders to communicate effectively with parents.

"Right now there's more noise than clarity on the issue, whether you're for them or against them," said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., which opposes vouchers. "We need to expand the conversation and focus on the facts."

Parents don't necessarily read the newspaper, she added. "When we talk about getting information out, it means going to where parents are, whether it's YMCAs, churches, community organizations, or wherever people gather," she said.

Mark Schneider, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a proponent of vouchers, agreed. "Information about charters, vouchers, alternatives, is very difficult to find and expensive for parents to process," he said. "We need to start developing better mechanisms for outreach."

Using the analogy of shopping for a car, he noted that people need to understand a market only when they're seeking to make a change.

"I become an informed consumer when it matters to me," said Mr. Schneider, who recently joined with two Washington-based community organizations—the 21st Century Schools Fund and the Friends of Choice in Urban Schools—to launch a World Wide Web site with information for Washington- area parents about charter schools and regular public schools. "If we find 10 or 15 percent of the population knows about school choice, that may be enough to make the market work. Any plan is never going to cover 100 percent of the population."

"There's no policy in the country that people come to automatically," added Jeanne Allen, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which advocates school choice. "Once people understand the issues of choice and charter schools, they like them."

Open to Changes

That perspective was supported by additional findings in the Public Agenda poll.

After questioning people initially on what they knew about vouchers and charter schools, pollsters provided definitions of the programs and asked respondents about their views.

Seventy percent of parents said they would definitely use a voucher or would seriously consider using a voucher. Fifty-four percent of parents said the same for charter schools.

In some cases, the respondents had ideas for how the school alternatives should be implemented that differed from the way they are now.

For instance, while the current voucher programs are aimed at children from poor families or failing schools, 72 percent of the respondents said that if their states offered vouchers, they would want all families to be eligible, regardless of income.

In other results from the survey, respondents offered a less-than-glowing opinion of their local public schools. Sixty-two percent said public schools "have some good things about them, but they need major change." More than half felt private schools generally provide a better education than public schools.

Community Involvement

A second opinion poll released last week— this one by the Washington-based Public Education Network—provided additional insights into how the public views education.

The purpose of the telephone survey, which polled 1,268 voters last month, was to gauge the interest of the general public in improving schools, said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of PEN, a network of local education funds established in 300 school districts.

The results, published in "All for All: Strengthening Community Involvement for All Students," show that "there's broader support for public schools other than [from] parents," Ms. Puriefoy said.

Nine in 10 of survey respondents identified schools that provide a good education as a "very important" community priority, ahead of other priorities such as fighting crime and drug use, providing structured programs and activities for teenagers and children, and helping senior citizens.

The respondents also identified priorities for ways that schools could best be improved. At the top of the list for approaches that "would help a lot" was "support for community efforts to raise academic standards and hold schools accountable." Near the bottom was "increase competition by making public funds available to private and religious schools," an answer that survey designers said was intended to encompass the concept of vouchers.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Pages 1,10

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