School Choice & Charters Commentary

A Polling Tale

By Terry M. Moe — November 01, 2000 4 min read
A recent poll’s results on voucher support may not be what they seem.

Support for vouchers is on the decline. Or so we are told by Phi Delta Kappa, a bulwark of the education establishment whose recent poll has been widely reported in the media.(“Traditional Public Schools Win Vote of Confidence in Poll,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

On its face, Phi Delta Kappa’s finding seems out of step with American politics. In just a decade, vouchers have moved from the fringes to the very center of our national debate on education. Today, there are three public voucher programs and more than 60 private voucher programs, all targeted at needy children in urban areas—and the pressure is on, the trajectory upward.

Anyone familiar with American democracy knows that issues rarely rise to the top without some basis in public opinion. It is no accident that three of the four major-party nominees in this year’s general election—Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gov. George W. Bush, and former Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney—are voucher supporters.

How, then, to account for the PDK finding? A little background is helpful. From the 1970s until 1991, PDK measured voucher support through an item that defined vouchers as a government- funded program allowing parents to choose among public, private, and parochial schools. After support for vouchers rose to 50 percent (with only 39 percent opposed) in 1991, PDK dropped the item in favor of a new one. The new one read: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” This measure, first asked in 1993, gave dramatically different results: Only 24 percent expressed support. Indeed, it indicated that even private school parents were opposed to vouchers—a result no expert would be prepared to believe.

Why such different “facts”? Research has long shown that most Americans are poorly informed about public policy and don’t have well-developed views. Recent polls by Public Agenda show the same for vouchers. This does not mean that Americans have no views on the subject. But it does mean that the opinions they express can vary considerably depending upon the wording of survey questions, the context in which they are asked, and the values and perceptions that get activated in respondents’ minds along the way.

The opinions expressed by the public can vary considerably depending upon the wording of survey questions.

The “at public expense” item clearly pushes respondents in a negative direction. It does nothing to define a voucher program. It encourages respondents to envision a special-interest program for private parents, rather than a choice program for all parents. And its use of the phrase “at public expense” is obviously disparaging. Nonetheless, Phi Delta Kappa and its pollster, the Gallup Organization, have used this item every year (but one) since 1993, and the media have reported the findings as fact. PDK has also introduced another measure—a good, neutrally worded one—but always asks it immediately after the “at public expense” item, which means that the voucher issue is already negatively framed before people get to it.

When I first heard news reports that the 2000 PDK survey showed a drop in support for vouchers from 1999, my first reaction was that this “fact” was probably due to something internal to the survey, and not to a change in political reality. The questions measuring voucher support in 1999 and 2000, however, had remained the same. So the cause had to lie elsewhere. Had the survey changed in some other, consequential way?

We would be wise not to take polls at face value. Their results are not simple facts.

A little investigation of the actual surveys (not the published reports) proved revealing. On the 1999 survey, respondents were asked to grade the public schools, and then were asked the two voucher questions. On the 2000 survey, respondents were asked the same grading questions, but then—immediately before the key voucher items—four additional questions were introduced that almost surely had important framing effects. The first two presented vouchers as a stark alternative to reforms seeking to improve the public schools, implying that people who support the public schools cannot or should not support vouchers. The next two items presented respondents with seven laudable ideals—for example, “to prepare people to become responsible citizens"—and associated them with the purposes of public schools.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this lead-in material from the 2000 survey framed the voucher issue very differently—and more negatively—than the 1999 survey did, and that this probably explains most or all of the apparent decline in support for vouchers. Indeed, without the negative framing, the results might easily have shown voucher support to be increasing.

The real lesson in all this is a general one, and goes well beyond vouchers. It is that we are wise not to take polls at face value. Their results are not simple facts. They need to be interpreted, carefully and skeptically—and even then, we may not know exactly what they mean.

Terry M. Moe is a Hoover Institution senior fellow, a member of the institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and a professor of political science at Stanford University. His work focuses on school choice and educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory.

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