Federal

Survey Gives Obama Edge on Education

By Alyson Klein & Linda Jacobson — August 26, 2008 5 min read

A larger proportion of the American public thinks that the Democrats are more likely to strengthen public schools than Republicans, according to a pair of opinion polls released recently.

The two polls also show that the public is divided as to what extent Congress should reshape the No Child Left Behind Act.

A poll released last week by Phi Delta Kappa International and the Gallup Organization reports that 46 percent of respondents viewed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as the presidential candidate better able to strengthen public education, compared with 29 percent for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they didn’t know which candidate would be better able to handle school policy.

Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll

In your opinion, which of the two major political parties is more interested in improving public education in this country—the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?

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In your opinion, which presidential candidate—Barack Obama or John McCain—do you trust to do a better job dealing with the following education issues?

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SOURCE: PDK /Gallup Poll

Respondents in the PDK/Gallup poll 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.

The results on which party’s presidential nominee would be better for public schools represent a significant shift from 2004, when the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was viewed by that year’s PDK/Gallup poll as equally supportive of public education as President Bush, with each receiving the confidence of 41 percent of respondents.

The second poll, released Aug. 12 by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, shows that 62 percent of Americans believe Democratic officeholders would be more likely than Republicans to improve the schools. That poll did not ask about how Sen. McCain or Sen. Obama would handle education as president.

Views on NCLB

“Education has traditionally been a Democratic issue,” said Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank. He said that President Reagan and the current president, both Republicans, 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.”

Education Next-Program on Education Policy and Governance Survey

The mere mention of the federal No Child Left Behind Act can affect survey results. Respondents who were asked about the provisions of “federal legislation” generally responded more favorably than those who were asked about the provisions under “the No Child Left Behind Act.” Respondents were asked:

As you may know, [the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT or FEDERAL LEGISLATION ] requires states to set standards in math and reading and to test students each year to determine whether schools are making adequate progress, and to intervene when they are not. This year, Congress is deciding whether to renew [the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT or FEDERAL LEGISLATION ]. What do you think Congress should do? Should it…

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SOURCE: Education Next-Program on Education Policy and Governance

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. Neither campaign has featured much 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 the Democrats are perceived as the “softer” party, typically more closely identified with domestic issues, she said.

The poll by Phi Delta Kappa International, 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 Harvard program’s poll was conducted by the survey firm Knowledge Networks last winter, and 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. It relied on a national sample of 3,200 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

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

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

The Harvard poll showed the public is about evenly split on the future of the NCLB law, with half saying the federal law should be renewed as it is or with a few adjustments, and the other half saying it needs major changes or should be abandoned altogether.

But the Harvard poll yielded slightly different results when the researchers did not mention the NCLB law by name. For instance, when interviewers simply described the major elements of the law, calling it “federal legislation,” about 57 percent of respondents wanted to see the law renewed, either as it is or with minimal changes, compared with 50 percent for those who were questioned using the name of the law.

Voucher Questions

The Harvard poll found the public to be roughly evenly divided on private school vouchers. Sen. McCain supports the use of government-funded vouchers for private school tuition, while Sen. Obama opposes such programs.

The Harvard researchers asked the questions four different ways.

Some respondents were asked whether they supported government-funded school vouchers for low-income families so their children could attend private schools. Others were asked that, but also informed that some believe voucher programs lead to greater equality of opportunity. A third group was asked about vouchers for any family that desired to send their child to private schools, without any income requirements. And the fourth set was asked the same question but told that some people say such a program would spur more competition in the public school system.

“For the most part, both the public as a whole and the various groups appear equally likely to support proposals that would use government funds to help pay the private school tuitions of either ‘low-income students’ or ‘all students,’?” says the Education Next article, written by William G. Howell, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Chicago; Martin West, an assistant professor of education at Brown University, in Providence, R.I.; and Paul E. Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard.

The PDK/Gallup poll showed that 50 percent of respondents said they opposed the use of public funds for school vouchers, while 44 percent supported the idea. That showed vouchers gaining traction over 2007, when 60 percent of respondents said they opposed the idea and 39 percent supported it.

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

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