School & District Management

Obama Education Views Can Sway Public, Poll Says

By Dakarai I. Aarons & Debra Viadero — August 31, 2009 4 min read
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A popular president’s strong stances on education issues can shift the public perception of those issues, according to a new national survey released today by the journal Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University.

The national survey, conducted earlier this year, found that knowing President Barack Obama’s opinion on education topics gave a boost to those who said they supported particular goals, including an 11 percentage-point increase in support for charter schools and a 13 percentage-point increase in those backing merit pay for teachers.

The survey was drawn from a nationally representative sample of 3,200 Americans, including 709 public school teachers. Pollsters asked what Americans think about a range of contentious education topics, including merit pay, single-sex schools, national standards, virtual schools, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The survey’s timing likely had an impact on the responses: Respondents were polled in late February and early March, when Mr. Obama’s approval ratings were above 60 percent. In the wake of a bitter fight this summer over health-care reform legislation, Mr. Obama’s job-approval rating had dropped to 50 percent—its lowest yet—in an Aug. 28 Gallup Poll.

Researchers said the “Obama effect” among those polled was strongest on those who shared the president’s Democratic political persuasion. Democrats were also more likely to be persuaded by research in changing their opinions.

Ed Next publisher Paul Peterson and researcher Martin West, both Harvard scholars, discuss the findings on President Obama’s and research’s opinionmaking power.

Positive research findings also had an impact on those who said they would support a policy goal. When poll respondents were told “a recent study presents evidence that students learn more in charter schools,” public support for charters grew by 14 percentage points.

The survey also found that research evidence was particularly persuasive with white people and public school teachers.

Follow the Leader

The survey’s results aren’t surprising, said Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The public tends to know little about the details of education policy and will follow the opinions of those whom they believe know more.

“When you have presidential leadership on education issues, both Congress and the general public have a tendency to fall in line,” Mr. Smarick said.

The federal NCLB law provides an illustration of how public policy can rise and fall in popularity with the president who championed it.

See Also

For more analysis of the poll results read our blogs:

The law, pushed by former President George W. Bush, was wildly popular with parents when it was implemented in 2002 at the height of Mr. Bush’s popularity in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mr. Smarick noted that Republicans tend not to be in favor of an expanded federal role in public education, but when Mr. Bush used his bully pulpit to say NCLB was what the nation’s schools needed, it passed both houses of Congress with wide Republican support.

A poll released last week by PDK and Gallup shows that NCLB, like the former president, is highly unpopular among many Americans, even though most Americans favor testing students in math and reading in grades 3 to 8. (“Obama School Plans Getting Good Grades,” Sept. 2, 2009.)

That poll showed similar high support for merit pay for teachers, increasing charter schools, and developing common assessments, all priorities of the Obama Administration.

The Education Next-PEPG poll shows the gap between rank-and-file Democratic voters, who are more likely to be swayed by presidential opinion, and education practitioners, who have been slower to adopt changes such as charter schools, said Charles Barone, a longtime Capitol Hill education staff member and director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee in New York City.

“I think because the advent of strong accountability is associated with [Mr.] Bush, for a lot of people on the left, it was easier for them to hate it,” Mr. Barone said, even though efforts were championed by Democrats such as Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who is the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who was the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee in the Senate.

Drawing on Obama

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has put the president’s support for certain school improvement strategies to work, pushing states to change laws to reflect the administration’s priorities.

In Tennessee, for example, the legislature voted in June to relax some restrictions on charter schools. Mr. Duncan had singled out the Volunteer State, among others, as one that may not be as competitive for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund under the economic-stimulus program as a result of its tight charter school caps. (“Racing for an Early Edge,” July 15, 2009.)

Mr. Smarick said Mr. Obama’s popularity represents an opportunity for policymakers and practitioners on the local and state levels.

“The president has given political cover to reformers on the ground, especially Democrats , to push these types of initiatives. In a lot of states, there are a lot of Democrats in particular who are opposed to merit pay or charter schools,” he said. “Once they realize the public is supportive—or even more supportive because the president is supportive—these local policymakers will see, ‘This is something I ought to support as well’.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama Education Views Can Sway Public, Poll Says

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