Poll Hints at Tight Race on Education Issues

By Alyson Klein — August 22, 2012 8 min read
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Political independents give presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney an edge over President Barack Obama when it comes to which candidate would be better in strengthening public education, according to a poll released today by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup.

The former Massachusetts governor takes a 46 percent to 41 percent lead over President Obama on that score among those identifying themselves as independents in what is expected to be a tight election.

But among all respondents in the PDK/Gallup national survey, Mr. Obama has the lead when it comes to which candidate would be better on education policy. Forty-nine percent of respondents said that if they were voting only on which candidate would be better positioned to improve public schools, they would choose Mr. Obama, while 44 percent said they would select Mr. Romney.

The poll’s national sample of 1,002 adults 18 and older has a 4 percentage-point margin of error, although PDK/Gallup says that margin of error is higher in the case of subsamples.

An edge for either candidate among independent voters could matter, given that Democrats and Republicans responding to the poll overwhelmingly trust their own party on education issues. For instance, 88 percent of Democrats surveyed said Mr. Obama would be the better choice to fix the nation’s schools, and 88 percent of Republicans favored Mr. Romney.

“More than ever, we sense a hardening of viewpoints on public education,” William Bushaw, the executive director of Phi Delta Kappa International, said in a telephone interview with reporters yesterday.

Public Attitudes Toward Public Education

Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup organization surveyed a national sample of adults age 18 and up from may 7 to June 10 on a wide range of issues involving American public education in their 44th annual poll on the topic. Among the questions:


SOURCE: PDK/Gallup poll, 2012

The poll, the 44th annual survey on public attitudes toward the public schools by the Bloomington, Ind.-based education group and the Washington-based polling organization, was conducted from May 7 to June 10. Twenty-eight percent of respondents were Republicans, 36 percent were Democrats, and 35 percent were independents. An additional 1 percent did not designate an affiliation.

In addition to the political questions, the poll touched on the public’s views on such topics as overall school quality, common standards, education funding, and teacher evaluation.

Independents’ Attitudes

Mr. Romney’s edge among independents in the poll may seem surprising, given that the Obama administration has devoted significant energy—and money—to K-12 issues. Analysts from different political perspectives who took part in the call with journalists had different explanations for the lead.

“I think we’re seeing the most negative campaign that we’ve ever ever seen. ... A lot of his accomplishments are being lost,” Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the National Education Association, which has endorsed Mr. Obama, said of the incumbent. “Saving teachers’ jobs to keep class size from exploding, those kinds of things don’t necessarily make headlines.”

But Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington, had a different explanation.

“I’m guessing that a good part of the reason for that is that [Mr. Romney] was governor of an educationally successful state,” said Mr. Finn, who served in the U.S. Department of Education during the Reagan administration. That gives Mr. Romney “a track record of accomplishment that I don’t think [Sen. John] McCain could have claimed,” he said, referring the GOP’s 2008 nominee.

Back in 2008, respondents in the PDK/Gallup poll conducted prior to their respective nominations gave Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, a big edge over Sen. McCain when it came to which candidate would be more likely to improve public schools. Forty-six percent of voters at that time said they trusted Mr. Obama more on K-12, while just 29 percent favored Mr. McCain.

Policy Priorities

In this year’s poll, respondents also overwhelmingly reported that they think it is more important for the federal government to work toward balancing the federal budget over the next five years than to improve the quality of schools. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they were more concerned with budget issues than the need to improve the education system, while 38 percent were more concerned with education.

That’s worth noting now that Mr. Romney has tapped U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate. Rep. Ryan is the author of a controversial budget blueprint that Mr. Obama and other Democrats contend would lead to big cuts in education spending over the next decade.

The relative weight of the budget issue also a marked departure from 1996, the last time the question was asked. Back then, just 25 percent of voters surveyed by PDK/Gallup said they’d rather see the federal government address the deficit, while 64 percent said it was more important to improve the nation’s schools.

In an interview, Martin West, who serves as Mr. Romney’s co-chair on K-12 issues, pointed to the results on that question—and Mr. Romney’s lead in the poll among independents—in claiming that the GOP’s message is getting through.

“I don’t think we need to choose between addressing the fiscal situation and improving the quality of schools,” said Mr. West, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Governor Romney’s message emphasizing the importance of both seems to be resonating with voters.”

But on the campaign trail Tuesday, President Obama said education was “something I have a personal stake in. ... That’s why I’ve made it a top priority of my presidency.”

In a separate question, meanwhile, 62 percent of poll respondents said they were willing to pay more in taxes in order to improve the quality of the nation’s urban public schools, while 37 percent said they wouldn’t agree to that. And 35 percent of respondents identified lack of financial support as the No. 1 problem facing schools in their communities, up from 23 percent in 2002.

Respondents were also optimistic about the potential impact of the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they thought the common core would improve the quality of education in their community, while just 8 percent thought the standards could decrease the quality of their schools. Forty percent thought the standards would have no effect.

But respondents were closely divided on another hot area of education policy: whether teacher evaluations should include student performance on standardized tests. Fifty-two percent of respondents were in favor of that, while 47 percent were opposed.

Respondents also tended to have a favorable view of charter schools, with 66 percent saying they favored the option, and 30 percent saying they were opposed. That’s down slightly from last year, when 70 percent of respondents embraced charters, which are public schools that operate largely independently.

But 44 percent of respondents said they thought parents should be able to send their children to a private school at public expense.

The survey also reflected concern about immigration-related issues. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that “the children of immigrants who are in the United States illegally” should not be entitled to a free public education, school lunch, and other benefits, while just 41 percent were in favor. Both Mr. Finn and Ms. Eskelsen were dismayed by those numbers. Mr. Finn, who favors education for all children regardless of immigration status, called it “one of the most depressing things in the survey.” Ms. Eskelsen said she wanted to “hug” him for saying that. (The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the right of children to a free public education regardless of their immigration status.)

Overall, in keeping with past surveys, respondents have a more positive attitude about the schools in their own communities than they do about the schools in the nation as a whole. Forty-eight percent of respondents gave their local schools an A or B grade, while just 19 percent gave the nation’s schools an A or B.

Education as Campaign Issue

So far in the 2012 campaign season, education has been overshadowed by the economy and other concerns, even though the Obama administration has given education a high profile in its domestic agenda.

The president pumped some $100 billion into education through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and used the Race to the Top education redesign competition, funded through that federal stimulus money, to reward states for steps such as expanding charter schools, adopting higher standards, and offering merit pay to teachers. Mr. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has given 33 states and the District of Columbia flexibility in addressing some mandates of the 10-year-old No Child Left Behind Act through waivers.

Overall, a plurality of respondents in the new poll—37 percent—gave Mr. Obama an A or B grade for his efforts on education. That’s a slight decline from last year, when 41 percent of those surveyed gave him the same grade. Seventeen percent of respondents said that Mr. Obama has “failed” when it comes to education, compared with last year’s 15 percent.

Respondents also gave Democrats the edge when it comes to which party is more interested in improving schools. Fifty percent of poll respondents said Democrats were more committed to the task, while 38 percent gave the edge to Republicans. But both parties did better this year than last year, when 44 percent of respondents gave Democrats the advantage, as opposed to 27 percent for the GOP.

Mr. Romney has a considerable record on education issues from his term as governor of Massachusetts, from 2003 to 2007. He pushed for the state to measure itself against top foreign countries on international math and science tests, for example, and advocated merit pay for teachers.

But he hasn’t spoken much about education on the campaign trail. He has suggested significantly shrinking the U.S. Department of Education, possibly by combining the department with another agency. And he has called for allowing parents to use federal education money to pay for tuition vouchers that could be used at their choice of private, religious, or public schools.

The PDK/Gallup poll did not ask respondents to grade Mr. Romney’s education record or platform.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week


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