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Education: A Vital Issue in Election 2000

Education: A Vital Issue in Election 2000

Public much more positive about education in their local community than about education nationally

by Alec Gallup

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

I. Importance of Education

KEY POINT:The public ranks education as one of the most important issues in this year's presidential campaign, with 91% saying it is "very" or "extremely" important.The educational issue may be based on perceptions of problems as much as it is on reality. Parents of school-aged children are quite satisfied with the quality of education their children receive, but much less so with the educational system in general in the country. Similarly, Americans give higher grades to the schools in their local community than they do to schools nationally.

Gallup polls conducted over the past year generally show that Americans believe education to be one of the most important issues to be discussed in this year's presidential election -- more important than even the economy and health care. In fact, half of the public believe education is an "extremely important" issue, a significantly greater percentage than for any other issue mentioned.

At the same time, education does not stand out above all other issues in terms of its salience to voters this year. In the public's response to open-ended questions, education does not dominate its concerns, but rather is at the top of a widely disparate list of concerns. For example, in response to a question asked in July, 12% of Americans said that education was the single most important issue in influencing their vote for president. This ranked it at the top of all issues, along with the economy, followed by health care (9%) and Social Security (8%). Similarly, Americans were slightly more likely to mention education (12%) than any other topic when they were asked in another July survey to name the single issue they thought it would be most important for the new president to address when he takes office next January.

"Now I am going to read a list of some of the issues that will probably be discussed in this year's presidential election campaigns. As I read each one, please tell me how important the candidates' positions on that issue will be in influencing your vote for president -- extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important." [RANDOM ORDER]

August 4-5, 2000

 

 

Extremely
important

Very
important

Extremely/very important

 

%

%

%

       

Education

50

41

91

The economy

41

44

85

Health care

44

40

84

Social Security

43

40

83

Taxes

40

42

82

Handling the budget surplus

39

41

80

Medicare

37

39

76

National defense

34

39

73



"And of all the issues I have just read, which is the single most important in influencing your vote for president?"

July 25-26, 2000

 

The economy

12%

Education

12

Health care

9

Social Security

8

Taxes

6

The gun issue

6

Abortion

6

National defense

5

Medicare

4

The environment

4

Handling the budget surplus

3

Creating opportunities for better-paying jobs

3

Foreign affairs

2

Foreign trade

*

   

None

2

OTHER (vol.)

15

No opinion

3



(vol.) Volunteered response
* Less than 0.5%

"Regardless of who wins the election, what single issue or challenge are you most interested in having the next president address when he takes office next January?"  

July 6-9, 2000

 

 

Education

12%

Social Security

9

Health care/health care costs/health care reform

9

Taxes

6

The economy

5

Abortion

4

Gun control

4

Care for the elderly

4

Medicare

3

Poverty/the poor/homelessness

2

Defense/national defense

2

Foreign policy

2

Cost of prescription drugs

2

Gas prices

2

Federal deficit

2

Welfare/welfare reform

2

The American public generally gives higher grades to the state of education in their local communities than they do to the education system in general across the country. Similarly, parents give higher grades to the education their children receive than they do to the educational system nationally. This type of local-versus-national disparity is often noted in survey research, and also pertains to such issues as health care and crime.

A Gallup survey conducted for the international educational associationPhi Delta Kappahas shown for years that the grades Americans give to schools in their local communities are much higher than grades they give to schools nationally. Forty-seven percent of national adults give the schools in their communities a grade of A or B, while only 20% give an A or B grade to schools across the country.

Additionally, a Gallup poll conducted August 24-27 of this year shows that 61% of the public is either "somewhat dissatisfied" or "completely dissatisfied" with the quality of education in this country, while 36% are "completely satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied." Dissatisfaction appears to be growing, as opinion was more evenly divided on the quality of education in this country in 1999, when 47% were satisfied and 51% were dissatisfied.

Opinion is dramatically different, however, on the quality of education one's own children receive. In the same poll, 78% of parents of school-aged children say they are either completely satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the quality of education their (oldest) child is receiving, while only 18% express any sort of dissatisfaction. In contrast to the education numbers for the country as a whole, parents' satisfaction with their children's schooling has remained relatively stable during the past year.

"Students are often given the grades A, B, C, D, and FAIL to denote the quality of their work. Suppose the public schools themselves, in this community, were graded in the same way. What grade would you give the public schools here -- A, B, C, D, or FAIL?"(Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa Study)

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

A & B

47

49

44

47

56

56

A

11

11

10

10

14

15

B

36

38

34

37

42

41

C

35

31

35

31

33

31

D

8

9

8

10

6

8

FAIL

3

5

3

4

3

4

Don't know

7

6

10

8

2

1

"How about the public schools in the nation as a whole? What grade would you give the public schools nationally -- A, B, C, D, or FAIL?"(Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa study)

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

A & B

20

24

19

26

22

21

A

2

2

2

1

2

3

B

18

22

17

25

20

18

C

47

46

47

43

47

50

D

14

16

14

16

12

17

FAIL

5

4

6

4

4

5

Don't know

14

10

14

11

15

7

"Overall, how satisfied are you with the quality of education students receive in grades kindergarten through grade twelve in the U.S. today -- would you say completely satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied or completely dissatisfied?"

 

 

Completely satisfied

Somewhat satisfied

Somewhat dissatisfied

Completely dissatisfied

No
opinion

           

2000 Aug 24-27

7%

29

40

21

3

           

1999 Aug 24-26

8%

39

38

13

2



II. What Does the Public Want Done to Improve Education?

A. Alternatives to the Current Public School System

Most Americans state that they support reforms to the existing public school system rather than alternatives to the existing system. When given the choice between reforming the existing public school system or finding an alternative system as a way of improving public education, Americans in the current education survey -- conducted annually by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa -- opt for reforming the existing system by almost a two-to-one margin, 59% to 34%. Similarly, when asked which they would prefer -- to improve the existing public schools or to provide vouchers to pay for private and church-related schools, Americans choose the former option by 75% to 22%.

While Americans are opposed to replacing the existing public school system, they are receptive, by varying degrees, to several non-public-school alternatives, including charter schools, home schools, and attendance at private and church-related schools by means of government vouchers for paying tuition.

More than seven in ten Americans (74%), however, believe that such publicly funded non-public schools should be required to take students from a wider range of backgrounds and academic ability levels than is now generally the case. Americans also believe that these schools should also be accountable to the state in the way public schools are accountable (76% to 21%).

In the current Gallup/Phi Delta Kappasurvey, among the 49% of Americans who know what such schools are, about seven in ten favor the idea of charter schools. At the same time, the public believes that charter schools, specifically, should be accountable to the state in the same way the regular public schools are accountable.

By a margin of 57% to 36%, Americans believe that home schools are a bad thing for the nation, although the percentage saying "a bad thing" has declined considerably since the first measurement in 1985, when the figure was 79%. At the same time, nine in ten Americans (88%) feel that home schools should be required to maintain the same level of educational quality as the regular public schools do. Virtually the same percentage, 92%, would require home-schooled children to take all the state and national assessment tests public school students are required to take each year.

 

"In order to improve public education in America, some people think the focus should be on reforming the existing public school system. Others believe the focus should be on finding an alternative to the existing public school system. Which approach do you think is preferable -- reforming the existing public school system or finding an alternative to the existing public school system?"

 

National
totals

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'97
%

'00
% 

'99
%

'97
%

'00
%

'99
%

'97
%

Reforming existing system

59

71

71

59

73

70

60

68

72

Finding alternative system

34

27

23

34

24

23

34

30

24

Don't know

7

2

6

7

3

7

6

2

4

 

"Which one of these two plans would you prefer -- improving and strengthening the existing public schools or providing vouchers for parents to use in selecting and paying for private and/or church-related schools?"

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

Improving existing public schools

75

70

74

72

78

68

Providing vouchers

22

28

21

26

21

30

Neither

*

1

*

1

*

1

Don't know/refused

3

1

5

1

1

1

*Less than one-half of 1%.

 

"Have you heard or read about so-called charter schools?"

 

National
Totals

No Children
in School
%

Public School
Parents
%

Yes

49

49

44

No

50

49

55

Don't know

1

2

1

 

"As you may know, charter schools operate under a charter or contract that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on public schools and permits them to operate independently. Do you favor or oppose the idea of charter schools?"

 

National
totals

No children
in school
%

Public school
parents
%

Favor

42

42

40

Oppose

47

47

47

Don't know

11

11

13


B. Vouchers

Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa have been asking the public about vouchers, an idea that originated in Europe, since 1970. To investigate this complex and controversial subject, eight questions, each containing slightly different wording, have been used. All of the questions have shown increasing support for vouchers as the public gradually became more accustomed to the idea.

Today, support for vouchers ranges from 41% to 52% in favor, depending on whether the question mentions vouchers that pay part of the tuition, allorpart, orallof the tuition. Based on the findings, the public appears to be more receptive to the idea of partial payment than to the other options.

Gallup has also investigated the public’s support for vouchers that would provide parents with tax credits rather than direct tuition payments. The findings reveal that the public is more supportive of vouchers based on tax credits than of those that pay tuition directly. Again, the same situation occurs as is true for tuition payments: Americans supportpartialtax credits by a larger majority, 65% to 34%, than they do total tax credits, 57% to 41%.

 

"Which one of these two plans would you prefer -- improving and strengthening the existing public schools or providing vouchers for parents to use in selecting and paying for private and/or church-related schools?"

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

Improving existing public schools

75

70

74

72

78

68

Providing vouchers

22

28

21

26

21

30

Neither

*

1

*

1

*

1

Don't know/refused

3

1

5

1

1

1

*Less than one-half of 1%

 

"A proposal has been made that would allow parents to send their school-aged children to any public, private, or church-related school they choose. For those parents choosing non-public schools, the government would pay all or part of the tuition. Would you favor or oppose this proposal in your state?"

 

National
totals

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00

'99
%

'98
%

'97
%

'96
%

'00

'99
%

'98
%

'97
%

'96
%

'00

'99
%

'98
%

'97
%

'96
%

Favor

45

51

51

49

43

43

45

48

46

38

47

60

56

55

49

Oppose

52

47

45

48

54

54

52

48

51

59

51

38

40

43

49

Don't
know

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

4

3

3

2

2

4

2

2

 

 

C. Testing

For several decades in the Gallup/Phi Delta Kappa surveys, the public has, by percentages of 70% and more, backed the use of standardized national achievement testing for measuring both student academic progress and for grade promotion including high school graduation.

Moreover, the public by 71% to 25% would favor the federal government administering a voluntary national program that would routinely test fourth and eighth graders to measure the performance of the nation’s public schools.

At the same time, Americans appear to have some reservations about achievement testing, particularly about the amount of testing in their local schools.

For example, the public is divided on whether, on an overall basis, there is too much or too little achievement testing in the local schools. Forty-three percent say there is about the right amount and the remainder is roughly split between those who think there is too much and those who feel there is too little testing.

Americans, by 68% to 26%, also believe that examples of public school students’ work offer a better way to measure their academic achievement than do their scores on standardized local and state achievement tests.

 

"Now, here are some questions about testing. In your opinion, is there too much emphasis on achievement testing in the public schools in your community, not enough emphasis on testing, or about the right amount?"

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'97
%

'00
%

'97
%

'00
%

'97
%

Too much emphasis

30

20

28

20

34

19

Not enough emphasis

23

28

26

28

19

26

About the right amount 

43

48

41

46

46

54

Don't know

4

4

5

6

1

1

 

"In your opinion, should the primary use of tests be to determine how much students have learned or to determine the kind of instruction they need in the future?"

 

National
totals

No children
in school
%

Public school
parents
%

Determine how much students have learned

30

32

27

Determine the kind of instruction needed

65

63

69

Don't know

5

5

4

 

"In your opinion, which is the best way to measure student academic achievement -- by means of test scores or by classroom work and homework?"

 

 

 

National
totals

No children
in school
%

Public school
parents
%

Test scores

26

28

23

Classroom work and homework

68

66

71

Don't know

6

6

6

 


D. Teachers

The following finding reveals the special importance of teachers in the school reform movement: When Americans are asked which one of four possibilities offers the most promise for improving the public schools in their communities, more than half (52%) answer "a qualified, competent teacher in every classroom." The next most frequently mentioned response, with only 19%, is "a free choice for parents among a number of private, church-related, and public schools," followed closely by "rigorous academic standards," with 17%.

As a way to attract and retain good teachers, the public favors increased pay for all teachers, by a margin of 62% to 37%, while as many as nine in ten are in favor of increased pay for teachers who demonstrate high performance.

As regards demonstrated performance, moreover, more than eight in ten (85%) feel that it is either very or fairly important that increased teacher pay should be tied to the scores their students receive on standardized achievement tests.

The public is divided as to whether teacher unionization has helped, hurt, or made no difference as regards the quality of education in the nation. About a quarter (27%) say it has helped, another quarter (26%) say it has hurt, and the remaining 47% say it has made no difference or they have no opinion. The percentage who feel unionization has hurt educational quality, however, has declined from 38% to the aforementioned 26% over the last 25 years.

 

"Of the following four possibilities, which one do you think offers the most promise for improving the public schools in your community: rigorous academic standards; a qualified, competent teacher in every classroom; the elimination of social promotion (that is, moving students from grade to grade to keep them in their own age group); or free choice for parents among a number of private, church-related, and public schools?"

 

National
totals

No children
in school
%

Public school
parents
%

A qualified, competent teacher in every classroom

52

49

59

Free choice for parents among a number of private, church-related, and public schools

19

18

15

Rigorous academic standards

17

21

15

The elimination of social promotion

10

10

10

Don't know

2

2

1

 

E. Government Influence and Funding

By a margin of about two to one, Americans would like the federal government to have less influence (61%) rather than more (33%) in determining the education programs of the local public schools. The current numbers are virtually the same as those obtained in two of three previous surveys since 1986.

In a similar vein, in the current survey 49% say the federal government has too much influence on the decisions that affect the local public schools, compared to 16% who feel the feds have too little influence, and 29% who say about the right amount.

In regards to determining how federal money should be distributed to the states, seven in ten Americans (71%) think the states should be given flexibility or leeway in how the money should be spent, while 23% think the money should be specifically designated for particular programs.

 

"Now, let's focus on the decisions made that affect the public schools in your community. As I name a specific group or individual, please tell me whether you think that group or individual has too much, too little, or just about the right amount of say in the decisions that affect the local public schools."

 

Too
much
% 

Too
little
%

About the
right amount
%

Don't
know
%

Federal government

49

16

29

6

State government 

43

15

36

6

Local board of education

29

18

49

4

School superintendent

25

18

51

6

Local teacher union

21

32

35

12

Principals

14

31

51

4

Students

11

56

30

3

Parents

7

66

25

2

Teachers

7

57

33

3

 

"Thinking about the future, would you like to see the federal government in Washington have more influence or less influence in determining the educational programs of the local public schools?"

 

'00
% 

'95
%

'87
%

'86
%

More influence

33

28

37

26

Less influence

61

64

39

53

Same amount

*

5

14

12

Don't know

6

3

10

9

*Less than one-half of 1%

 

An April study also found that Americans, when asked specifically what it is that the federal government can do, were more likely to mention funding and money than any other specific topic:

 

"What action by the federal government do you think would be most effective in helping to improve public schools in the United States today?" [Open-ended; Record up to three mentions]

 

April 7-9,2000

 

National adults

K-12 parents

 

 

 

Funding/more money for education (general)

30%

33%

Standards for teachers/teacher testing/improve quality of teachers

13

11

Teacher pay/pay teachers more money

9

9

Operate at the state/local level

8

8

Less government involvement

7

7

Discipline

5

5

Class size/smaller classes

4

5

Curriculum/go back to teaching basics

4

4

Standards for students/testing students

4

4

Control violence/make schools safer

3

4

Bring prayer back in schools

3

3

Hire more teachers

2

3

Provide better school supplies/materials/technology

2

4

School buildings/build more schools

2

1

Allow vouchers

2

3

Monitor schools more closely/be more involved

2

3

Parental involvement

1

2

Equal funding across the board

1

2

More well-rounded curriculum

1

2

More activities/programs for kids

1

2

Need to be regulated/standardized

1

1

Tax cuts/advantages

1

1

More involved with students

*

1

Drug education/awareness

*

1

School choice

*

*

Teacher incentives

*

1

Better schools (general)

*

*

Not allowing vouchers

*

*

Longer school sessions

*

--

Parental guidance/role models

*

*

 

 

 

Other

10

10

Nothing

4

1

No opinion

12

9

 

(vol.) Volunteered response
* Less than 0.5%

 "What do you think are the biggest problems with which the public schools of your community must deal?"

 

National
totals 

No children
in school

Public school
parents

 

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

'00
%

'99
%

Lack of financial support/funding/money

18

9

17

9

19

9

Lack of discipline/more control

15

18

17

18

9

15

Overcrowded schools

12

8

10

6

14

12

Fighting/violence/gangs

11

11

11

10

11

12

Use of drugs/dope 

9

8

10

9

9

6

Concern about standards/quality

5

2

6

3

5

1

Crime/vandalism

5

5

5

5

4

4

Parents' lack of support/interest

4

4

5

4

3

5

Low pay for teachers

4

2

4

2

3

1

Difficulty getting good teachers/quality teachers

4

4

4

4

4

5

More teachers/not enough help

4

1

4

1

3

1

Taxes too high

3

*

3

*

2

*

Lack of attention/understanding of students

3

1

2

1

4

1

Religious education

3

2

4

2

1

1

Poor curriculum/low standards

2

2

2

1

1

2

Lack of respect

2

2

3

2

1

1

*Less than one-half of 1%.

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