Opposition to School Law Growing, Poll Says

April 07, 2004 5 min read
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American voters are becoming increasingly aware of the No Child Left Behind Act, but a growing minority of them are deciding they don’t like it, a new poll sponsored by the Public Education Network and Education Week suggests.

Three-fourths of voters questioned in January said they had heard about the bipartisan law, up from 56 percent who said so in a survey a year earlier.

“That’s a very significant increase,” said Celinda C. Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster and the president of Lake Snell Perry & Associates Inc., the Washington-based firm that conducted the survey, whose results were released here last week. But, she added during an April 1 press conference, “to have found out about No Child Left Behind is not to have become a fan of it.”

The survey report, “Learn . Vote. Act. The Public’s Responsibility for Public Education,” is available from the Public Education Network. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

While supporters still outweighed those who dislike the law, the opposition grew threefold between January 2003 and a year later. Twenty-eight percent of this year’s respondents said they opposed the No Child Left Behind Act, compared with 8 percent in the 2003 PEN/Education Week poll.

The level of support remained relatively steady, dipping slightly from 40 percent of respondents a year ago to 36 percent this year. About one-third this year said they were “not sure” whether they supported or opposed the law. The question did not seek to characterize the federal measure.

President Bush has championed the law—which passed Congress by overwhelming majorities in 2001—as a centerpiece of his domestic agenda.

A total of 1,050 registered voters were surveyed by telephone for the poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The survey includes an oversampling of 125 African-American voters and 125 Latino voters.

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View the accompanying chart, “Voter Reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act.”

But David H. Winston, a Republican political strategist and the president of the Winston Group, a polling firm in Alexandria, Va., said the opinion research his group has conducted on the No Child Left Behind Act doesn’t bear out the conclusion that more voters are opposing it.

“I didn’t see any significant increase in favoring or opposing [the law],” he said last week. “It basically stayed where it was.”

Mr. Winston cautioned that there were some differences in polling technique, both in the phrasing of questions and the sample. His group polled 1,000 registered voters with no oversampling.

A December 2002 poll by the Winston Group showed 50 percent of respondents with a favorable impression of “Bush’s education reforms,” and 29 percent unfavorable. Results from a January 2004 survey were about the same, with 52 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable.

That 2004 Winston Group poll also asked the same question using the name “No Child Left Behind Act.” With that wording, 54 percent had a favorable impression, and 23 percent an unfavorable one. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

‘Sin’ Taxes for Education

The fifth annual PEN/Education Week poll, funded by a grant from the MetLife Foundation, also examined how education stacks up against other concerns, how it might play in the presidential race, and how voters view taxes for schools.

It found that the “economy and jobs” was the top national concern of voters, with education ranking second. Out of 11 possible choices, the “economy and jobs” was selected by 27 percent of voters and education by 15 percent.

“In the wake of September 11 ... the public continues to see education as a top priority,” said Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of the Public Education Network. Based in Washington, PEN is an organization of local education funds and individuals that seeks to promote community engagement in public schools.

Education is an important consideration for a majority of voters when weighing candidates for president, according to the survey.

Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they would be “somewhat more” or “much more” likely to vote for a presidential candidate who promised to make education “the centerpiece of their administration.”

The poll suggests voters are divided on President Bush’s performance when it comes to public education. Thirty-five percent of respondents said the president was doing a “good” job, and 10 percent said “excellent.” Meanwhile, 27 percent said he was doing a “just fair” job and 25 percent a “poor” job regarding public education.

Voters were also asked about their views on tax and budgetary matters. Sixty percent said they believed public schools did not receive enough federal aid. Education was the top item respondents said they would want to protect from cuts if their states faced budget reductions, with nearly half selecting that area of spending.

Consistent with previous years’ polling data, the respondents expressed a willingness to pay higher taxes to improve public education. Fifty-nine percent were either “very willing” or “somewhat willing” to do so.

In probing the issue further, however, the poll found respondents disinclined to choose federal income taxes or local property taxes as their favored approach.

To examine how voters would raise extra funds for education, the survey listed six categories—five that focused on higher taxes and one on cutting spending elsewhere—and asked respondents to identify which they would be “most likely” to support, and then to provide a second choice.

The most popular approach was increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, followed by increasing taxes on families that earn more than $300,000 per year. Coming in third was higher taxes on corporations.

Ms. Lake said such preferences shouldn’t be too surprising.

“Sure, their favorite taxes are sin taxes, taxes on the wealthy, corporate taxes,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have supported a tax of another nature.” She emphasized that 60 percent said they would pay more in taxes generally for education.

“You know, they’re real Americans,” Ms. Lake added. “They don’t love tax increases. But I think, across the board, these are pretty robust findings.”

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