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Published in Print: October 3, 2001, as Poll Finds Support for Vouchers Wanes if Public Schools Affected

Poll Finds Support for Vouchers Wanes if Public Schools Affected

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Although the public appears to be equally divided over school vouchers, backing for the idea wanes as supporters are told that vouchers could decrease funding for public schools, a national poll released last week says.

Officials of the National School Boards Association said they commissioned the poll to look more closely at opinions on vouchers beyond how many people back the school choice option and how many do not. The NSBA opposes the use of public money for vouchers to send students to private schools.

Zogby International, a Utica, N.Y.-based pollster, interviewed 1,211 adults by telephone in May, including an oversample of 301 African-Americans. The margin of error overall is plus or minus 3 percentage points, and 5.7 percentage points for the African-Americans sampled.

Equal proportions of the people polled, or 48 percent, said they opposed and supported vouchers. But the poll found that those who "strongly oppose" vouchers (32 percent) outpaced those who "strongly favor" the option (24 percent).

For the African-Americans surveyed, 41 percent "strongly oppose" vouchers, more than double the 19 percent who said they "strongly favor" them.

With an issue like vouchers, which has split people in past surveys, those with "greater intensity" about the topic are more likely to vote and work harder to press their case, said John J. Zogby, the president and chief operating officer of Zogby International.

To Marc Egan, the director of the NSBA's voucher-strategy center, the poll's results suggest that support for vouchers is "paper thin." Especially, he added, when those in favor consider the negative impact voucher programs could have on tax revenues targeted for public schools.

Of the voucher supporters surveyed, 39 percent said they would withdraw their support if the program would result in the loss of public school tax dollars.

Among supporters and opponents alike, the poll found that 80 percent to 90 percent of the respondents wanted private schools that accept vouchers to be held publicly accountable for academic standards, admission requirements, financial disclosure, and test scores.

Those polling results put voucher supporters in a bind, Mr. Egan contended. People are weighing what vouchers would mean for their own children as well as their impact on the community as a whole, he said.

"What [voucher advocates] are proposing time and again is clearly not popular with the public," he said, noting that voters in Michigan and California soundly rejected voucher initiatives in their states last year.

Distorting Facts?

Clark Neily, a staff lawyer with the Institute for Justice, countered that the poll fails to capture the feelings of parents whose children attend low-performing schools and would benefit most from tuition vouchers to send students to private schools. The Washington-based legal-advocacy group represents families participating in the Cleveland and Milwaukee voucher programs.

The poll showed that 57 percent of African-Americans with children under the age of 17 backed vouchers. But 55 percent of those respondents said they would withdraw their support if vouchers resulted in public schools' losing tax revenue.

Mr. Neily called the decrease of tax dollars for public schools a "distortion of the facts," arguing that most voucher programs spend less money per student than the public schools.

For a more balanced picture, he said, the people surveyed also should have been asked if they would rather spend their tax dollars on "unsafe public schools" that had made little progress in teaching children, or spend the money for vouchers to send students to private schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court's agreement last week to hear a case testing whether publicly funded vouchers can be used at religious schools in Cleveland also will shift the debate from a legal question to a focus on the program's benefits, Mr. Neily suggested.

Although the Alexandria, Va.- based NSBA believes that the poll puts the burden on voucher supporters to prove such programs' value, Mr. Neily disagreed. "The pressure is on [voucher opponents] to tell a parent whose child is trapped in a failing school why they should not use a voucher," he contended.

"[Voucher advocates] do represent an appealing and understandable core value," Mr. Zogby, the pollster, said. "But when a broad range of other values are considered in all of this, they are kind of swimming upstream."

Vol. 21, Issue 5, Page 7

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