Absence of Choice Helps Explain Parental Dissatisfaction

Published October 1, 2007

A poll released July 31 by the Strong American Schools’ “ED in ’08” campaign found the vast majority of voting-age Americans are deeply worried about U.S. public schools. Almost three-fourths say the public schools have “serious problems,” according to the Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research poll.

A vast majority of respondents characterized public schools as either “in crisis” (29 percent) or a “major problem” (45 percent).

Less than one-third said they are satisfied with the presidential candidates’ positions on children’s issues–particularly schools.

That gets to the main point of this release of unsurprising data: To put heat on politicians to pay more attention to education as an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Neglected Question

But what the activists mostly want is more money for the same failing public school system.

Strong American Schools, a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisers, has some hefty backing from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its program aimed at getting education high on the candidates’ agendas.

A political heavyweight–Roy Romer, former Democratic governor of Colorado and former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District– is chairing the campaign.

With all due respect for these luminaries, their poll would have been a lot more informative and useful if it had asked why so many Americans are troubled about public schools. And it would have been good if the pollsters had asked average students what they would like to see done about the problems.

Satisfied Parents

When one looks at the question from an education consumer’s perspective, and seeks to find why some folks are quite satisfied, answers begin to emerge.

The truth is that one study after another has shown a high level of satisfaction with education among parents who are allowed a choice of schools for their children.

University of Wisconsin Prof. John Witte, the official evaluator of the pioneering Milwaukee voucher program, summarized his research this way for a New Orleans newspaper:

“There’s one very consistent finding: Parental involvement [in the Milwaukee voucher program] is very positive, and parental satisfaction is very positive. … [P]arents are happier. The people using vouchers are mostly black and Hispanic and very poor. … [T]hey deserve the same kind of options that middle-class white people have.”

Proven Advantages

A Manhattan Institute study of another pioneering school choice program–Florida’s McKay Scholarships for disabled students–found 93 percent of McKay recipients were satisfied or very satisfied with their schools of choice. Among parents whose children attended assigned public schools, satisfaction levels were 33 percent or lower.

Other studies in cities such as Charlotte, Cleveland, New York City, San Antonio, and Washington, DC have consistently shown high levels of parental satisfaction when children attend schools of choice, whether publicly or privately funded.

Why are they happy? According to a compilation by the Institute for Justice and other groups, the parents cited the following as some of their favorite things: strong academic programs, teacher skills, school discipline, children’s safety, student respect for teachers, moral values, class size, teacher-parent relations, parents’ involvement, and the freedom to observe religious traditions.

You could take that list and deduce that the absence of many of those features helps explain the disaffection turned up by the “ED in ’08” panjandrums.

Powerful Consumers

It is also reasonable to conclude that many were happy customers precisely because they were treated like customers–that is, consumers with the power to move their children to a better school.

A wise political candidate, it would seem, would want not just to put education per se on the ’08 agenda, but to emphasize freedom of choice in education. The investors’ page of Reuters.com declares under the heading, Parental Dissatisfaction with Public Schools, “about 90 percent of Americans believe parents should have the right to choose their child’s school.”

You would think that statistic would be striking enough to capture the attention even of candidates who usually count on the backing of those staunch foes of parental choice, the national teacher unions.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“ED in ’08” Warns Candidates: Voters Believe America’s Schools Are in Serious Trouble,” Strong American Schools, July 31, 2007: http://edin08.com/NewsArchives.aspx?id=1132

“Parental Satisfaction with School Choice,” released in December 2004 by the Institute for Justice, Florida Alliance for Choices in Education, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and School Choice Wisconsin, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #21962.

“Schools: Overview,” Reuters.com, August 13, 2007: http://www.investor.reuters.com/business/IndustryDmDescr.aspx?industry=SCHOOL&target=%2fbusiness%2fbussecindustry%2fbussecindfake%2fbussecindoverview&page=dmdescr