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Poll Gives Obama Edge on Improving Schools

By Alyson Klein — August 20, 2008 4 min read

A greater proportion of Americans think that Sen. Barack Obama would be more likely than Sen. John McCain to improve public schools as president, according to a poll being released today.

The survey, conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup Organization, reports that 46 percent of respondents viewed Sen. Obama as the candidate for the White House better able to strengthen public education, compared with 29 percent for Sen. McCain. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they didn’t know which candidate would be better able to handle school policy.

The poll, released annually by PDK, a professional society for educators based in Bloomington, Ind., and Princeton, N.J.-based Gallup, was conducted from June 14 to July 3, using a national sample of 1,002 adults aged 18 and older. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The survey also showed that only a small proportion of Americans—16 percent—want to see the No Child Left Behind Act, the main federal K-12 education law whose reauthorization is pending in Congress, renewed without major changes. Thirty-one percent of respondents identifying themselves as Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats said would like to see the law extended, but changed significantly.

And 25 percent of Democratic respondents said they would like to see the law scrapped entirely, compared with 27 percent of Republicans.

The results on which party’s nominee would be better for public schools represent a significant shift from 2004, when that election’s Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, was viewed as equally supportive of public education as President Bush, with each receiving the confidence of 41 percent of respondents on the issue. In 2000, respondents gave then-Texas Gov. Bush a slight edge over Vice President Al Gore on public education, with 38 percent of those surveyed saying they thought Mr. Bush would better handle K-12 policy, compared with 37 percent for Mr. Gore.

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Those surveyed gave Sen. Obama, the Illinois Democrat set to officially gain his party’s presidential nomination next week in Denver, an edge on handling a range of education issues, including in promoting parental choice, typically a policy position more closely identified with Republicans.

Forty-three percent said they trusted Sen. Obama to do a better job on the issue of school choice, compared with 32 percent for Sen. McCain, the Arizona Republican slated to accept his party’s nomination early next month in St. Paul, Minn.

Respondents also gave Sen. Obama an advantage on closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, supporting research efforts for developing new curriculum courses and new educational assessments, and funding education.

The Education Party?

“Education has traditionally been a Democratic issue,” said Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. He said that both President Reagan and the current president were able to use the issue effectively, but that “the needle has moved back to where it traditionally is on education, in part because of the backlash against the No Child Left Behind Act.”

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, said Democrats may have an edge on the issue simply because Americans have little to go on in trying to determine how each candidate would proceed on education policy, because the campaign has featured so little discussion of it.

“People are responding based on uninformed opinions as the issues have only recently begun to surface,” Ms. Allen said. People are more likely to guess that Democrats would handle education better, because they are perceived as the “softer” party, typically more closely identified with domestic issues, she said.

Survey respondents also said that Democrats in general were more likely to be interested in improving public schools. Forty-four percent said they thought the Democratic Party would be more committed to strengthening K-12 schools, while just 27 percent thought the Republican Party would be.

That’s also a contrast from 2004, when survey respondents gave Democrats a smaller edge over the GOP on the same question, with just 42 percent saying they trusted the Democrats more on the issue, compared with 35 percent trusting Republicans.

This year’s PDK/Gallup poll results on that question mirror another recent survey, conducted by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, which found that 62 percent of Americans believe that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to improve schools.

That poll, which was conducted by the polling firm Knowledge Networks last winter, is scheduled to be published in the fall issue of Education Next, a journal of research and opinion published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The poll also showed a boost in public support for private school vouchers. In the 2007 poll, 60 percent of respondents said they opposed allowing parents to use public money for private school choice, while 39 percent supported that idea. But this year, just 50 percent of respondents said they opposed the use of public funds for school vouchers, while 44 percent supported it.

A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Poll Gives Obama Edge on Improving Schools

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