Political independents give presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney a slight edge over President Barack Obama when it comes to which candidate would be better for public education, according to a poll released last week 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 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. The poll 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.
A slight 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Aug. 21, 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.”
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 through economic-stimulus aid, programs such as the Race to the Top education redesign competition, and waivers from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act.
As governor of Massachusetts, from 2003 to 2007, Mr. Romney 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. He has suggested significantly shrinking the U.S. Department of Education, possibly by combining the department with another agency, and 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.
A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Poll Hints Tight Presidential Race on K-12