Americans like school choice, but don’t understand it
Education | New polling data shows public opinion on school choice is ill-informed
by Evan Wilt
Posted 10/07/16, 03:42 pm
WASHINGTON—A new survey says most Americans are in favor of school choice programs—but don’t necessarily understand them.
After interviewing more than 1,000 U.S. citizens, EdChoice found that nearly half favored having charter schools in their districts, but another 30 percent had never even heard of them. Additionally, the public was twice as likely to support voucher programs as oppose them, but an estimated 41 percent of respondents were initially unfamiliar or unsure about school vouchers.
“A lot of my clients are ready to launch into ‘let’s have a discussion about why we need more charter schools,’” said Christine Matthews, president of Bellwether Research, which conducts polling and qualitative research on a variety of topics including education policy and reform. But the public instead needs to know, ”What’s a charter school?” Matthews said.
Each year since 2013, EdChoice, with help from Braun Research, conducts phone interviews with Americans from across the country to gauge public opinion on a variety of educational topics. This year’s survey found most Americans liked the idea of education alternatives. But respondents also admitted to a lack of knowledge about school choice programs and how they perform.
EdChoice asked survey participants the average amount of annual dollars spent per student in the public school system. The most popular answer was “I don’t know” followed by “$4,000 or less.” Without actual data, only 17 percent said they believed students received the right amount of funding, and more than 50 percent said per-pupil spending was too low. After hearing actual per-student spending was just under $11,000 in 2013, 38 percent still said spending was too low.
“Americans dramatically underestimate the amount of per-pupil spending on public schools,” Matthews said. “There’s a real disconnect with the public. Because voters aren’t aware of how much is being allocated per pupil or toward education, there’s this feeling there’s too little.”
Since 1991, charter school attendance boomed from a handful of students to more than 3 million today. Charter schools are free to attend and usually funded by state education money. While they maintain the same academic standards as public schools, charter programs aren’t encumbered by the same bureaucracy as the public school system.
When asked which type of schooling grants children the best education, 42 percent of survey respondents said private schools. Only 28 percent viewed public schools as the best form of education, while 11 percent preferred charter schools and 10 percent said homeschooling was the best.
Educational savings accounts (ESAs) are the newest school-choice venture. About 50 percent of survey respondents said they favored ESA programs and their No. 1 reason was they gave parents more freedom and flexibility. Four states have some form of an ESA on the books. Nevada, which enacted the broadest ESA program in the country in 2015, has its program on hold after legal disputes.
ESAs allow parents to take their child out of the public school system and receive a payment into a government-authorized account for a variety of purposes. Parents can use the money for private school tuition, tutoring, online classes, and, in Nevada’s proposed program, homeschooling and religious schools.
Public support for school-choice programs grew marginally in this year’s survey compared to previous years despite the increase in charter school attendance and school voucher programs. Generally, survey respondents were hesitant to give an opinion one way or another.
Andy Smarick, an education policy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, explained as school choice programs become more tangible, parents feel hesitant to take a position either way until they see how school choice will actually affect them: “Maybe we’re at the point now where school choice is a management issue and a implementation policy issue and voters are saying, ‘Hm, let me figure this thing out. I’ll tell you next year if I actually like it when I know more.”
Evan is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD reporter.