Public Backs School Equity Efforts; Opinion Divided on ‘No Child’ Law

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A strong majority of Americans say they support redirecting tax revenues to schools in poorer areas to bring greater equity to students, though the public also suspects that schools waste too much money, a nationwide survey has found.

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View the accompanying chart, "Mixed Responses."

The poll by the Educational Testing Service found that 65 percent of respondents considered it appropriate to allocate tax money to poorer communities even if such revenue came from wealthier areas. Only 26 percent said reallocating the money was a mistake, while 9 percent were undecided.

Among people from all economic backgrounds, "the concern about schools in low-income areas is at least as great as the concerns in their own area," Allan Rivlin, one of the researchers who worked on the survey, said at a June 30 press conference. "People feel very strongly that there’s a real problem in terms of quality in low-income areas."

The survey was conducted by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart and the late Republican pollster Robert M. Teeter through phone interviews of 1,309 adults in May and June. The poll’s margin of error is 3 percentage points. It touched on a broad range of issues related to school finance and accountability—including the public’s view of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The survey found that 76 percent of all respondents and 74 percent of parents believed at least a "fair amount" of taxpayer money was being wasted in K-12 education. The poll also showed a reluctance to accept higher taxes, particularly at the local level. Fifty percent of those surveyed said state taxes for education should stay the same or be decreased; 62 percent said local taxes should be held steady or cut.

"The property tax has often come out as the least appealing tax, the one that people find the most arbitrary and unfair," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, a watchdog organization in Alexandria, Va. Property taxes are the traditional mainstay of local funding for schools.

Yet few respondents believed their money was being squandered in the classroom. Only 7 percent said money was wasted on teacher salaries, and just 11 percent said too much was being spent on school supplies and facilities. Forty-six percent said that money was wasted on administrators’ salaries and benefits.

Kurt Landgraf, the president of the ETS, a private, nonprofit educational testing and research organization in Princeton, N.J., indicated his support for reducing public schools’ reliance on local property taxes, which he said hinders equity and fairness in education.

Split on Federal Reform

The survey, the fourth annual one commissioned by the ETS on public attitudes toward education, showed that 74 percent of respondents said the quality of public schools was a concern to them, when they were questioned about a number of education- and tax-related topics. By comparison, 79 percent ranked job availability as a concern; 77 percent said the amount they paid in federal taxes was a concern.

More Americans are aware of the No Child Left Behind Act than they were last year, the poll found. Of those questioned, 51 percent were at least aware of the law; in May 2003, only 34 percent knew of it.

The public was divided, however, on the law’s impact. Thirty-nine percent of respondents viewed it favorably, while 38 percent did not, with 23 percent undecided. In 17 "battleground" states for the 2004 presidential election, 40 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of President Bush’s signature education achievement, while 36 percent regarded the school improvement law favorably, with 24 percent offering no opinion.

Those 17 states were chosen on the basis of both narrow margins of victory in the 2000 election and current opinion polls of likely voters. They include Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and Ohio.

Respondents were also virtually evenly divided on whether their local districts had enough money to meet the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirements. Forty percent of all respondents said their districts did not have adequate resources for those purposes, while 39 percent said they did.

Mr. Sepp said parents and the general public were more inclined to take a strong interest in schools than other areas of taxpayer spending. Still, he said, polls should be interpreted as "expressions of moral or social preferences," rather than as firm indicators of how the public would vote in elections.

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Page 12

Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Public Backs School Equity Efforts; Opinion Divided on ‘No Child’ Law
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