School Choice & Charters

Polls Find Growing Support For Publicly Funded Vouchers

By Linda Jacobson — September 04, 2002 4 min read
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Americans’ support for using public funds to pay for students to attend private schools apparently was growing even before the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision upholding the Cleveland voucher plan, findings from this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on public attitudes about education suggest.

Read the results of the “34th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” from Phi Delta Kappan.

A summary of the Center for Education Reform survey is available from CER.

And a follow-up poll by Gallup conducted shortly after the court decision showed support for vouchers continuing to rise.

While 52 percent of those surveyed for the annual PDK/Gallup poll said they oppose allowing students to attend private school at “public expense,” support for the notion has jumped 12 percentage points since the 2001 poll—from 34 percent to 46 percent.

A second question on the same issue, asked differently, also resulted in a significant increase. That question did not include the phrase “public expense.” Instead, it said “the government would pay all or part of the tuition.” A majority—52 percent—said they were in favor of the idea, compared with 44 percent from last year’s survey.

The telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, was conducted just prior to the Supreme Court’s June 27 ruling. The results were released last month by PDK, an international association of educators based in Bloomington, Ind.

Following the court’s decision, the Gallup Organization polled the public on the second question again, and the percentage in favor increased to 56 percent.

The percentage increase in support for vouchers is “meaningful,” said Nancy Belden, the senior president of Belden, Russonello & Stewart, a Washington-based polling organization.

But she cautioned that she doesn’t think it’s “some sort of watershed.”

“If you look at the trend over time, it has moved around,” she said of public opinion on vouchers. “The public is split. No one is winning on this issue one way or another.”

She added that lessons can be learned from those who conduct polls on abortion because there are so many different opinions on the issue. “No one asks a two-part abortion question anymore,” she said. “Everyone asks a four-part abortion question.”

The Bush Factor?

President Bush’s support for vouchers may help to explain the increase in support for vouchers in the PDK/Gallup poll, said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank that has conducted research on school choice.

“It might be a temporary blip in the polls because of Bush’s support,” Mr. Fuller said. “As long as his approval ratings are high, the things he likes, the voters will also like.”

But Dan Lips, the president of the Phoenix-based Arizona Dream Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports school choice, said public support for vouchers has been increasing.

“That support is only going to grow as more parents become familiar with the benefits of choice,” he contended.

Mr. Lips added that tax credits that help provide private school scholarships to children from low-income families in states such as Arizona, Illinois, and Florida are making Americans more comfortable with the various forms of choice.

Even though the PDK/Gallup poll hinted that the public is more willing to accept the idea of using tax dollars to allow parents to choose private schools for their children, a separate poll released last month by the Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, found that when the question is asked differently, support for vouchers is as high as 63 percent.

The center, which supports various forms of school choice, asserts that the PDK/Gallup poll uses “clearly negative questions to elicit lower support for reforms such as school choice,” along with “loaded phrases” such as “public expense.”

“Support for giving parents—not school systems—control over their child’s education continues to grow, despite the best efforts of well-funded opponents like the PDK group to distort the views of most Americans,” Jeanne Allen, the center’s president, said in a press release.

The center’s poll of 1,204 adults was conducted by Zogby International Polling, a Washington and Utica, N.Y.-based firm, after the Supreme Court’s decision. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The survey questions use the word “scholarships” instead of “vouchers.” And instead of saying “taxpayer funded,” it describes the source of funds as “the tax dollars allotted for their child’s education.” It also says that the funds would go to “poor parents” instead of parents in general.

Lowell C. Rose, a co-author of the PDK/Gallup poll, said PDK “is comfortable with the questions we asked.”

“Our basic emphasis is on the trend lines,” he said, adding that PDK has asked the same question including the “public expense” phrase since 1995.

Grading Public Schools

This year’s PDK/Gallup poll still shows significant support for the public schools and for efforts to improve them.

Seventy-one percent of the public school parents polled said they would give the school their oldest child attends a grade of A or B. As with previous polls, support drops as those polled become further removed from the schools. Fewer than half of the respondents—47 percent—said they would give the schools in their community an A or a B, which is a drop of 4 percentage points since last year. When asked to grade the public schools nationally, only 24 percent of the sample gave the schools top grades, while the largest proportion—47 percent— gave them a C.

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