School & District Management

Poll: Public Sees Schools As a Priority

By Linda Jacobson — April 24, 2002 6 min read
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In spite of their concerns about national security and the economy, American voters continue to list education and school funding among their top priorities. And they’re unlikely to vote for candidates who don’t share their views, according to a poll being released this week.

Read “Accountability for All: What Voters Want From Education Candidates,” from the Public Education Network and Education Week. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The second annual opinion poll co-sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week, which questioned 800 registered voters nationwide, shows that Americans place education issues second only to jobs and the economy and ahead of other pressing concerns, including Social Security, health care, and the United States-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan.

When the first PEN/Education Week poll was conducted last year, education held the top spot.

At a time when most states are reducing spending because of declining revenues, a majority of voters—53 percent—also want their elected officials to protect schools from budget cuts, according to the report on the poll results, “Accountability for All: What Voters Want From Education Candidates.”

Specifically, they want early-childhood education, class-size-reduction programs, teacher training, and teachers’ salaries to be shielded from cuts. They are less concerned, however, about school facilities, after- school programs, and the arts.

“As this poll shows, education far outdistances every other spending priority when the public is asked to identify programs that should be made ‘recession-proof,’” Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of PEN, a Washington-based network of local education funds, and Virginia B. Edwards, the editor and publisher of Education Week, write in the introduction to the report. “Indeed, there are strong indications that education will once again be a major political issue during the 2002 midterm elections.”

Candidates at the state level are going to have a tough time, though, sparing education budgets from cuts this year, considering that education is the single biggest expenditure for state governments, said Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

“Politicians are on the spot,” he said. “It’s hard to cut your budget and keep your hands off education. They want to be the education governor or the education senator, but they basically have no choice.”

He added that education is already a dominant factor in this year’s races, and that discussion is turning to finding additional resources for schools, given the recent economic downturn.

The poll of the public’s attitudes toward education— which will be conducted again in 2003 and 2004—is also part of a larger effort by PEN to raise Americans’ sense of accountability for high-quality schools. (“Poll: Public Lacks Time for Schools,” April 18, 2001.)

“The responsibility for good schools should not just be placed on the child or the teacher, but it should be placed on the broader community,” said Arnold Fege, PEN’s director of public engagement. He added that while voters might be interested in having access to data about school spending and achievement, the next step is for them to “act on the data.”

Education Candidates

A candidate’s position on education is an important factor when voters go to the polls, according to the survey, which was conducted by telephone by the Washington-based firm of Lake Snell Perry & Associates in January and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. Sixty- three percent of all the respondents said a politician’s education views played either the “most important” or a “very important” part in their voting decisions.

As expected, the feelings were stronger among parents, with 73 percent of the parent-respondents choosing one of those two categories. But even among people without school-age children, 59 percent said education was either a very important or the most important factor in their votes.

About three-quarters of Americans also said they believe their votes in national and state races and in local school board elections make a difference in school quality.

Many voters also make their housing decisions based on the quality of the local public schools. At 44 percent, white Americans were more likely than African-Americans (27 percent) and Latinos (35 percent) to choose a place to live based on school quality. A higher percentage of African-Americans than whites and Latinos, however, chose “building stronger families” as the most important effect of good public schools on a community.

Aside from sparing education from budget cuts, Americans have other expectations from those politicians who call themselves education candidates, the poll shows.

While voters are generally skeptical of those who use the label, they do want candidates who understand education issues, believe most decisions about schools should be made by parents and teachers, and stress achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Citizens want leaders who prove their commitment to education through their day-to-day voting records, the poll report says. And they’re not impressed by those who have big visions and want to significantly change public education.

Specifically, Americans react less favorably to candidates who support vouchers for private schools and who want to shift authority over the public schools away from superintendents and school boards and place it in the hands of private companies or other officials, such as a mayor.

“Americans retain a strong vision of public schools as community resources,” the report says, “and they want politicians to remain focused on the goal of strengthening that resource rather than replacing it with untested options that lack strong credibility and accountability to the citizens they serve.”

But Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which favors private school choice and experiments with private management of schools, said she doesn’t think those results imply that candidates can’t be reform-minded.

“You do have to be articulate,” she said, adding that candidates might need to use other words to express their proposals on issues such as school choice. “It depends on how you ask the question. People are going to gravitate toward things they understand and that make them feel good.”

The respondents were also polled on issues of accountability. Asked about student achievement, voters said that students and teachers were most responsible when an individual student fails a basic-skills test. But when a significant number of students are failing, the Americans polled are more likely to place the blame on the community as a whole.

Testing Views

A large percentage of Americans—74 percent—support requiring students to pass a basic-skills test to be promoted to the next grade, the poll suggests. But the respondents provided different opinions about the role of standardized testing.

About 25 percent said linking promotion to the next grade to performance on a test would help schools identify and help those students who need extra attention. But an equal percentage said they were concerned that focusing too much on testing would force teachers to “teach to the test.”

The poll also shows that only 8 percent of Americans are worried that more testing will lead to higher dropout rates.

Last year’s PEN/Education Week poll showed that almost 30 percent of Americans responding believed that improving teacher quality was the surest way to improve student learning.

And this year’s results haven’t changed. The second most important step is equalizing funding between rich and poor schools, with 16 percent of the respondents choosing that remedy. Twelve percent said that having all children read by the 4th grade was the most important factor in raising achievement, but Mr. Griffith said he wouldn’t be surprised if that option rose to the top in a few years as the public focuses more on results.

Education Week‘s reports on the Public Education Network/Education Week poll will continue with further installments of “The Education Electorate” in future issues.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Poll: Public Sees Schools As a Priority

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