Equity & Diversity

More Americans Give Top Grades to Public Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 28, 2017 5 min read
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Americans’ support for public schools has risen in the last year—across the country and across the political spectrum—but the public also wants schools to go beyond academics to provide more career and student health supports, according to the 49th annual education poll by Phi Delta Kappa International.

The percentage of Americans rating K-12 education quality—at both the national and local levels—at an “A” or “B” is the highest it’s been since the 1980s.

That echoes the results of a Gallup opinion poll released last week, which found 47 percent of Americans completely or somewhat “satisfied” with the quality of K-12 education, up 4 percentage points from last year. More Democrats reported being satisfied than Republicans, but conservative participants showed the biggest jump in support, from 32 percent in 2016 to 43 percent this year.

“I do think some of this is a Trump effect,” said Nat Malkus, a resident scholar and deputy director of education policy programs at the free-market-oriented American Enterprise Institute, who was not involved in the survey. President Donald Trump’s and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ high-profile and unsuccessful push to cut education funding and launch a large-scale private school voucher program may have “engendered a backlash resulting in increasing defense of traditional public schools,” he said. “The national story has definitely been pro-private, so the traditional public school advocates have girded their loins in support, so to speak,” and may have made conservatives more vocally supportive of their public schools.

Fifty-two percent of Americans polled by PDK this May opposed publicly funding vouchers for private schools, and opposition significantly increases for religious school vouchers. That’s a slight increase in support from 2014, however, when two-thirds of respondents opposed publicly funded vouchers. PDK has asked about support for publicly funded vouchers 20 times since 1972, said Joshua Starr, the chief executive officer of PDK International, and there has never been a majority in favor of paying for them. Forty-six percent of public school parents said they would move their child if their tuition would be paid at a private or parochial school—though only 28 percent would leave public school if they only got half of private school tuition paid.

Growing Support for Public K-12

Americans seemed to be pushing for less focus on standardized tests as a measure of school quality, and more analysis of how well schools prepare students to be successful adults after graduation, Starr said.

Sixty-five percent or more believed that public schools should get more money to provide after-school programs and mental, physical, and dental health care for students who would not have it otherwise.

“There’s something missing from both the policy conversation on education and also the classroom; people just want to see schools doing more than they are currently doing,” he said. “A lot of people who want their kids going to college want them to have interpersonal skills and career skills as well.”

The poll found that more than 80 percent of Americans believe schools should offer “career skills” and industry certificates or licensing courses in schools. More than half of those polled favored more career-oriented courses even if it meant students spent less time in purely academic courses.

However, both career-education and college-expectation questions revealed big gender gaps among parents of public school students. Sixty-four percent of parents whose oldest child is a boy wanted more career-skills courses, compared to only 49 percent of parents of girls. And while 55 percent of girls’ parents expected them to go to a four-year college, only 39 percent of boys’ parents expected their sons to earn at least a bachelor’s degree. In fact, 45 percent of the parents didn’t expect their sons to attend college at all.

“We in the field have been talking about four-year college or bust, and what parents are saying is yeah, four-year college is important, but a lot of parents are saying my kid may not be going to college or may be going to college and be working,” Starr said.

Malkus said the gender gap in college expectations greatly surprised him. “Nine out of 20 parents don’t expect their boy to go to college. That’s nuts,” he said.

Mixed Interest in Diversity

For the first time, PDK also asked how important it was for schools in a community to have racially and economically diverse student populations—and Americans’ response was somewhat lukewarm.

More than half of those polled said racial and ethnic diversity was very important and improves the school learning environment for black, white, and Hispanic students alike. But most of that support came from black and Hispanic respondents and from liberals; only 48 percent of white Americans and 43 percent of Republicans polled thought racial diversity was highly important. And while 70 percent of parents said they’d prefer to send their child to a racially diverse school if all else was equal, only 25 percent said they would do the same if it lengthened their child’s commute to school.

“It’s pretty difficult for people to say diversity is bad,” Malkus said, but added: “What’s interesting about that is when there’s a cost associated with it there is that huge difference in support. It goes directly at the heart of why school segregation is such a stubborn problem.”

There was even less support for economic diversity—the primary method of integrating schools since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 ruled against race-targeted, school-assignment systems. Only 48 percent of those polled thought economic integration improved learning for poor students, and 10 percent thought going to a school with more poor students would lead to worse education for wealthier students.

“Diversity for its own sake may be a value folks have, but any effort to organize a school and school system for diversity must be a value proposition,” Starr said. “Folks prefer diversity, but they really don’t want to work for it. That’s pretty much what it comes down to.”

The PDK poll was based on a random, representative sample of 1,588 adults across all 50 states, who were interviewed in May by mobile or land telephone in English or Spanish. The Gallup poll was based on August telephone interviews with a random, nationally representative sample of 1,017 adults.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as More Americans Give Top Grades to Schools in Latest PDK Poll

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