Public Support for Local Schools Reaches All-Time High, Poll Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — September 05, 2001 3 min read

Even as calls for profound improvement in the nation’s schools pepper news reports and dominate political debate, a new poll reveals that Americans’ support for their local schools is on the rise, with 51 percent grading them A or B.

“The 33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” is available from Phi Delta Kappa International.

The finding represents the highest level of public satisfaction with schools in the 33-year history of the Phi Beta Kappa/Gallup poll. It was the first time that a majority had given their schools such high marks, and an 11 percent increase over the 40 percent that rated their schools A or B in 1990.

Lowell C. Rose, the director of the poll and the executive director emeritus of PDK, a Bloomington, Ind.-based professional organization for educators, said he believes more people believe their schools are doing well because the national movement to improve schools has delivered results.

“Schools have clearly gotten better—there is no doubt about it,” Mr. Rose said. “The ‘90s have been a decade of improvement in public schools, and the upward trend [in the poll results] reflects the steady increase in regard people have for the public schools.”

Asked to evaluate their community schools, 11 percent of respondents gave them an A, and 40 percent gave them a B. Parents of public school students, who accounted for about one-third of those polled, gave schools an even better appraisal, with 62 percent awarding them an A or a B.

Asked to evaluate the nation’s schools as a whole, however, the marks dropped, a finding consistent with previous years’ polls. Two in 10 respondents rated them A or B; about half gave them a C.

The survey drew varying interpretations. The National Education Association said on its Web site that the poll shows “America likes its schools and wants to invest in them.” But some observers highlighted instead the nationwide finding that 70 percent of respondents—up 4 percentage points from last year—gave U.S. public schools grades of C or lower.

“The numbers are far from a clear vote of confidence in our public schools,” Michael Poliakoff, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group, wrote in an online letter to members.

And the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based group that supports school choice, said that high marks from a “bare majority” offer “cold comfort” to the children in the many public schools that received lower marks.

Mixed Signals?

The poll explored many areas, including several that have a high political charge. On the use of standardized tests, a central feature of President Bush’s education plan, Americans showed a seemingly contradictory mixture of opinion. Forty-four percent said they thought schools were placing just the right amount of emphasis on achievement testing in schools, but many disagreed. Thirty-one percent said there was too much emphasis on testing, and 22 percent thought there wasn’t enough.

Most respondents—two-thirds—said they believed that standardized tests should be used to determine what kind of instruction students need, rather than assess what they know, and that classroom work and homework are the best indicators of what children have achieved. But 53 percent still said they favored using a single test to promote students to the next grade, and 57 percent favored using a test to determine if students should graduate.

On the issue of school vouchers, a feature dropped from the president’s plan, 62 percent of respondents said they opposed “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.” That number dropped to 54 percent when the question was asked differently: whether respondents would favor or oppose the government’s payment of “all or part of the tuition” for students who chose “public, private, or church-related schools.”

The poll’s sponsors said that both results, when viewed with previous years’ findings, show steadily declining support for vouchers since 1998, but voucher advocates disagreed.

The Center for Education Reform noted that PDK downplayed another finding in the poll, which showed that 52 percent of public school parents favored government financing of students’ costs at nonpublic schools.

In other areas, the poll found growing support for home schooling, which has become increasingly popular in the past decade. Forty-one percent of respondents called it “a good thing,” an answer only 15 percent gave in 1985. Fifty-four percent called it “a bad thing,” down from 73 percent in 1985.

The margin of error for the poll, a random telephone sample of 1,108 adults conducted in late May and early June by the Gallup Organization, is 4 percentage points.