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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

When It Comes to Schooling, Does the Public Trust Red or Blue?

By Rick Hess — April 27, 2017 3 min read
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Note: This piece was co-authored by Kelsey Hamilton.

For a guy who likes to win, Donald Trump has had a daunting first 100 days. His push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act flopped, with the ACA now more popular than it’s ever been. Trump’s executive orders on immigration and sanctuary cities have been caught up in the courts. His trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is missing, and his tax reform effort faces an uncertain future. Oh, and Trump has the worst numbers at this juncture of any president in the history of polling.

That brings us, I suppose, to education—where Trump has promised a strong push for school choice. Here, we have an interesting conundrum. The polls suggest that school choice is far more popular than President Trump. An April Gallup poll, for instance, reported that 59% of American adults agree with Trump’s proposal to “provide federal funding for school-choice programs that allow students to attend any private or public school.” Just 26% of respondents disagreed, meaning that school choice was +33 (or around 40 points ahead of Trump).

When an unpopular president pushes a popular idea, where does the public come out? When push comes to shove, is public sentiment likely to back Trump or his Democratic critics? I think history suggests that public opinion doesn’t exist in a vacuum; instead, it’s often shaped by whether voters trust the party pushing the idea. As Republicans pursue Trump’s sharp-edged education agenda, just how deep a reservoir of public support are they drawing on? Especially given the backlash against many Obama-era education initiatives (most famously, the Common Core) and steady support for school choice, is public sentiment on education perhaps more favorable to Republicans than it may have once been?

To explore this, my AEI colleague Kelsey Hamilton and I turned to the polls. Kelsey hunted for various forms of the question: “Which political party does a better job handling education issues?” She relied mostly on the online database of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research. There were a bunch of relevant polls, but few that asked the question more than a couple times. We ultimately used three polls that offered a long-running picture of how Americans feel about Republicans and Democrats when it comes to schooling. If you want to see the particulars, check out our new brief here.

But the bottom line is pretty simple: for at least the past two decades, Democrats have enjoyed a steady advantage when the public is asked who it trusts most to improve education. However, that Democratic advantage has fluctuated substantially over time. Depending on how the question is asked and the particular poll, the lead has ranged from a high of +25-30 points in 1999 and 2009 to a modest single-digit lead in 2004 and 2014.

What to make of this? First, at least in recent decades, the public has consistently trusted Democrats more than Republicans when it comes to education. This poses a challenge for Trump, an unpopular president pushing a popular but controversial education agenda. It is safe to say that Trump will be swimming upstream in making his case.

Second, although Democrats have enjoyed a consistent advantage on education, their lead appeared to be narrowing in the later years of the Obama administration. What happens to that trend line under Trump remains to be seen. After all, the Democratic advantage has moved in accord with presidential elections. With Bush’s first election, the gap shrunk dramatically. When Obama won, the Democratic lead exploded. So Trump’s win may have produced a big lift for the Republicans on education (though the pollsters haven’t yet dug into that question).

It’s possible that Trump’s vivid embrace of choice will shift public attitudes on which party they trust for schooling. A public sympathetic to school choice could be so troubled by Democratic opposition that it comes to view Democratic and Republicans in a very different light when it comes to handling education. That’s not the way I’d bet, given Trump’s track record to date. But we shall see.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.