Education Secretary Rod Paige is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention Tuesday about President George W. Bush's education policy. He has his work cut out for him. Bush's current approval rating on education is the lowest since he took office. According to Gallup's August 2004 Work and Education poll*, 47% of Americans approve of the way Bush is handling education -- down nine percentage points since January -- while 47% disapprove.
Election Year Opinions?
As the presidential election draws closer, these findings may more reflect the general political polarization in the country than specific feelings about Bush's education policies. A related question asked in the same survey -- "Overall, how satisfied are you with the quality of education students receive in kindergarten through grade 12 in the U.S. today?" -- actually shows public satisfaction with education to be at its highest point since 1999. (See "Satisfaction With K-12 Education Shows Increase Over Last Year" in Related Items.)
Paige's audience at Madison Square Garden will be mostly Republican, so he may have an easier time persuading them that Bush deserves high marks on the education issue. Like Americans' evaluations of Bush in other areas, views of the way he has handled education are strongly partisan -- 81% of Republicans approve, compared with just 18% of Democrats.
The public's politically divided nature on Bush's handling of education is illustrated in the comments of several Gallup Poll respondents interviewed after the survey. A 42-year-old woman from Colorado describes herself as a "die-hard Democrat" and disapproves of Bush's education policies. At the time of the survey, she says she was "still caught up in the excitement of the Democratic National Convention where I heard John Kerry talk about his education proposals -- including expanding the Head Start Program [a federally funded child development program for young children from low-income families]. I wish Kerry's plans were in place now."
At the other end of the spectrum is a 51-year-old Republican mother of three from Wisconsin who approves of Bush's handling of education and the standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act -- the centerpiece of Bush's education policy. "Standardized testing is critical," she says. "So many kids cannot even fill out a job application after graduation -- there has to be early intervention to identify those who need help with basic skills."
Demographics and Politics
In light of NCLB's goal to close the achievement gap that continues to separate white students from black students and other minority students, that minorities are still significantly less likely to approve of Bush's education policy may be somewhat disheartening. Half of whites (51%) approve of the way Bush handles education, compared with a third (32%) of nonwhites. Politics are again at play here, as whites tend to be Republicans and nonwhites tend to be Democrats.
More encouraging is that the same gap does not appear when looking at respondents' income levels. Lower-income Americans are about as likely as higher-income Americans to approve of Bush's job on education. Schools with economically disadvantaged students would get $13.3 billion in ESEA Title 1 funding in the fiscal year 2005, or 34% of the Department of Education's elementary and secondary school funds, according to the NCLB Web site. The proposed increase for the ESEA program would reportedly exceed any previous increases.
Politics seem to subvert all other considerations this year, but other factors may have led to a downturn in the ratings of Bush's handling of education. Because of the recent recession and state budget cuts, many public schools are underfunded at a time when public school enrollment has peaked at 48 million students (2001 data). In order to receive federal funding, school districts must implement new programming required by NCLB, but many claim they cannot afford new programming without a higher level of funding. These issues have resulted in bad press for NCLB.
Certainly not all public opinion on this issue is politically driven. "I'm very close to the educational system and I think it's working fine," said a 68-year-old female Democrat from New York. "I have children and grandchildren who teach. They all went to public school, some even to public colleges. I like NCLB. I think it's a good policy because it gives poor children opportunities and extra programs that they wouldn't have otherwise."
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 9-11, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.