Budget & Finance

Aid to Schools Gets Support In Voter Poll

By Joetta L. Sack — February 26, 2003 5 min read
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Most American voters believe that education funding should be protected from cuts at all costs, even as states deal with budget crises, according to a new national poll.

Hard Times: Tough Choices

Despite growing concerns about national security and the economy, the poll found that education remains a top funding priority for voters, though it competes closely with health care, particularly among older voters.

The poll, commissioned by the Public Education Network and Education Week, shows that most voters are deeply concerned about cuts in state budgets and the impact of those cuts in their communities.

The report, “Demanding Quality Public Education in Tough Economic Times: What Voters Want from Elected Leaders,” is available from the The Public Education Network. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

It also shows strong support for provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, and found that most respondents believe that states will play the most important role in ensuring the accountability requirements of the federal law are met.

This is the third year that PEN—a national coalition of nonprofit community groups that work to raise achievement in low-income schools—and Education Week have sponsored the poll of public attitudes on a variety of education-related topics. The results were scheduled for release this week.

The pollsters interviewed 1,050 registered voters by telephone between Jan. 22 and 28. The results have margins of error from 1.8 to 5.2 percentage points, depending on the number of respondents to each question. In some cases, pollsters asked a smaller, random sample of voters about a particular topic.

Asked about which programs should be protected from state budget cuts, 54 percent of respondents named education, 32 percent said health care, and 7 percent said law enforcement and fire departments. Within the federal budget, 88 percent of voters identified health care as a top priority, 87 percent identified education, 76 percent named retirement and Social Security, and 74 percent said terrorism and national security.

“What I’m impressed with, and this may not be different from last year, but stronger, is the intensity of the value of public education,” said Arnold F. Fege, the director of public engagement for PEN.

States have struggled with budget deficits and cuts in recent months, and many lawmakers have been reluctant to bring up the idea of new taxes. “States Brace for Tough New Year,” Jan. 8, 2003. President Bush, moreover, has emphasized federal tax cuts as a tool to help stimulate the economy.

Gauging Tax Sentiment

The poll suggests the public has little appetite for tax cuts, though. And, contrary to what some policy observers believe, it indicates significant support for tax increases if the new revenue is routed to education.

By a ratio of 2-to-1, the voters polled said they were more worried about cuts in services than about tax increases, and 67 percent said they would be willing to consider new taxes if the money were put into a special trust earmarked for education.

Even 62 percent of the respondents who identified themselves as strong Republicans—typically seen as averse to higher taxes—were also likely to support a tax increase earmarked for education.

Kathy Christie, the vice president for information management at the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan policy group based in Denver, said she had not seen any evidence that voters were becoming more favorable toward state tax increases.

Still, she added, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that started to emerge.”

She cautioned, however, that it’s tough to gauge whether respondents to polls would really vote for a tax increase if given the choice. Already this year, Oregon voters have rejected a temporary, three-year hike in state income taxes that would have been partly funneled to schools. “Oregon Rejects Tax Hike That Would Have Helped Schools,” Feb. 5, 2003.

Two-thirds of the voters responding to the poll said education had been “seriously” or “somewhat” affected by state budget problems, and three-quarters said they expected education to be seriously or somewhat affected by budget cuts in the near future.

“It confirms education is a basic value for the public,” Celinda C. Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster and the president of Lake Snell Perry & Associates Inc., the Washington firm that conducted the poll, said of the findings.

“They remain committed to it in good times and bad,” she said.

The poll found education and health care competing to be the top priority for state funding. For instance, in the open-ended question about protecting programs from state budget cuts, 61 percent of respondents under age 45 named education, while respondents over the age of 64 split their priorities, with 42 percent choosing education and 41 percent choosing health care.

Education was named as the top priority by Latinos, but African- Americans chose health care.

Federal Mandates

The poll found a general awareness of the No Child Left Behind Act, and some knowledge of its accountability provisions. This is the first year the poll has asked specific questions about the federal law, which President Bush signed in January of last year.

Fifty-six percent of the respondents said they had seen, heard, or read about the law, which is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Of those, 75 percent believe that schools will need more money to meet the law’s mandates, while 20 percent believe they will need about the same levels of funding.

The respondents were divided about which level of government should be most responsible for ensuring that districts meet the provisions of the law: Twenty-nine percent said state governments; 26 percent said the federal government; 22 percent said local governments; and 19 percent said all three.

Nonetheless, 42 percent of respondents believe that the federal government should be responsible for any increased funding needed to meet the law’s mandates.

“People don’t have a lot of information [on the No Child Left Behind Act], but their instincts tend to be in favor of it as part of their commitment to children,” Ms. Lake said. “But there is a very strong assumption it will take more money to implement.”

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