Education and Choice: What Does America Think?

Published March 1, 2000

Pollsters are working overtime these days, plumbing the public’s attitudes towards Presidential candidates in upcoming primary states.

But many other important polls have taken place. Several related to education and school choice have been conducted during the past year, both at the national level and at the state level. Here is a summary of the findings from some of these surveys.

U.S.: Support for Choice Grows with Understanding

A Public Agenda poll released last November had good news and bad news for voucher supporters.

The bad news? The vast majority of the American public appears to have little knowledge about school choice, vouchers, charter schools, or for-profit schools.

The good news? When school choice is explained to them, most Americans embrace the idea of school vouchers, and few express concern about their use at religious schools.

“There is a lack of concrete information out there, so it creates an opening for scare tactics and distortion” by defenders of the status quo, commented Clint Bolick, litigation director for the Institute for Justice.

According to the study, titled On Thin Ice: How Advocates and Opponents Could Misread the Public’s Views on Vouchers and Charter Schools, 63 percent of American adults say they know little or nothing about vouchers, and 81 percent say the same about charter schools.

After having school choice explained to them, 57 percent support vouchers and 68 percent support charter schools. Support for vouchers is higher among blacks (46 percent) and Hispanics (41 percent) than among the general public (29 percent).

Among parents with children in public schools, the situation is more clear-cut. A majority (55 percent) say they would want their child to attend a private school if money were not an issue. Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of these parents (70 percent) would definitely use or seriously consider using a voucher.

For more information …

On Thin Ice: How Advocates and Opponents Could Misread the Public’s Views on Vouchers and Charter Schools, is available on the Public Agenda Web site at Or call 212/686-6610.

U.S.: Vouchers Promote Equal Opportunity

In a nationwide survey of 502 adults, conducted last June for the Democratic Leadership Council, two-thirds (67 percent) of all respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the way U.S. public education was working, a sentiment shared by 61 percent of Democrat respondents.

When asked about vouchers–whether they would promote equal opportunity or make a bad situation even worse–a majority of respondents from all demographic and political groups said vouchers would promote equal opportunity.

For all respondents, the equal opportunity voucher option won a 54:38 margin of support, with the strongest support among Republicans (67:24) and males (60:36). Perhaps surprisingly, more than half of Democrat respondents favored vouchers to promote equal opportunity (51:40), ahead of Independents (48:44), and females (48:40).

U.S.: Most Hispanics Favor Vouchers

An overwhelming 70 percent of U.S. Hispanic parents would support school choice programs that include both public and private schools, according to a nationwide survey of 1,000 Hispanic adults conducted in January for the Hispanic Business Roundtable. Only 25 percent opposed the idea.

In addition, 63 percent of respondents specifically supported the voucher program approved last year in Florida, which allows parents to send their children to private or religious schools if their public school is rated failing by the state. Among Florida Hispanics, support was even higher at 74 percent.

The survey, conducted by QEV Analytics Inc., also showed that 76 percent of Hispanics believe that bilingual education programs should make sure that students learn English well, rather than being taught in their native language.

“Hispanic parents see education as the way to open the doors of opportunity for their children,” said Roundtable executive director Roberto G. Deposada. “That’s why having the option to pick the best school for their children is a very attractive proposition for them.”

For more information …

Results from the Hispanic Business Roundtable’s January survey are available on the group’s Web site at

U.S. Cities: Parents Dissatisfied with Public Schools

In a survey of 1990-1996 census data for 50,000 households in 55 cities across the nation, the Education Testing Service reported last October that customer dissatisfaction levels with public schools are far higher than any for-profit firm could experience and hope to continue in business by attracting patrons voluntarily.

If 5 percent or less is considered a business benchmark rate for customer dissatisfaction, then in only one of the 55 cities are the public schools meeting customer needs: Santa Ana, California, with a rate of 4.5 percent.

In more than half of the cities surveyed, between 16 and 34 percent of households consider their public schools unsatisfactory. Nearly half (46 percent) of families who were dissatisfied had enrolled their children in private schools. Overall, 7 percent of households in the cities were ready to move out because of their unhappiness with the public schools. This figure rises to more than 20 percent in Cleveland and Oakland.

Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League, told Education Week that dissatisfaction rates would be even higher if urban parents were better informed.

“If you’re not aware of what’s possible, then you can be satisfied with what you’ve got,” he said.

For more information …

For a free copy of the report, “School Satisfaction: A Statistical Profile of Cities and Suburbs,” contact the Educational Testing Service at 609/734-1200 or 202/659-8056.

California: No Tax Hike for Schools

A poll of 2,007 California residents conducted in January by the Public Policy Institute of California reported a sharp increase in concern about the quality of public schools, but no desire to raise taxes to improve them.

When a similar survey was conducted last May, 46 percent of respondents said the quality of education in the state’s public schools was a big problem; now that figure is 53 percent. While 39 percent of respondents to the current poll said the quality of public education had declined in recent years, only 22 percent thought it had improved.

Respondents nevertheless opposed Proposition 26, which would make it easier to raise taxes for schools, by a 45:44 margin. This March ballot initiative would require only a simple majority to raise taxes to repair or replace local schools, down from the two-thirds majority currently required.

For more information …

The Public Policy Institute of California survey was reported by Doug Willis in “Most Think Schools Failing, Poll Says,” San Jose Mercury News, January 14, 2000. Visit the newspaper’s Web site at

Georgia: African-Americans Favor School Privatization

A Research Atlanta survey last fall of more than 700 Georgia parents found more than half of African-American parents with a child in public schools favored having private companies run the schools. Only about one-third of white parents favored the idea.

The debate over letting private firms manage low-performing schools has been under review for more than a year by school boards in Atlanta, Cobb County, and Macon.

Linda Schrenko, head of Georgia’s public education system, told the Jacksonville Times-Union she would have expected the figure for minority parents to be even higher, since minority parents generally have been among the strongest supporters of school choice options such as vouchers and charter schools.

“To me, if you can’t get a voucher and you can’t get choice as an option, the next step would be privatization,” she said.

Michigan: Voucher Plan Gaining

A January survey of 600 Michigan voters conducted for The Detroit News revealed not merely majority support for a ballot initiative to permit school vouchers, but a 30-point lead.

The voucher initiative would establish school vouchers in districts where less than two-thirds of students graduate from high school, and also in districts where school boards or voters adopt vouchers. Vouchers could be used at private schools, religious or secular, and would be worth up to $3,100, roughly half the per-pupil spending at public schools and charter schools in the state.

The poll showed 53 percent of voters favor the voucher initiative, with a distant 23 percent opposed and 24 percent undecided. When respondents were given arguments for and against vouchers, opposition and undecided voters increased to 29 percent each, and support dropped to 42 percent. However, disaggregated poll results show support ranges across racial, gender, and party lines in both city and metro areas.

Pennsylvania: Philadelphians Favor Full Choice

A survey of Philadelphia voters conducted last summer by the Lincoln Institute of Public Policy Research found a solid 72 percent of respondents favored giving parents a choice of public schools for their children.

Support for vouchers was particularly strong among voters aged 35-54 (79 percent), Republicans (78 percent), and African-Americans (74 percent).

A majority of voters favored giving parents vouchers to send their children to any school of their choice, public or private. Surprisingly, with this option, more Democrats (56 percent) were supportive than Republicans (55 percent), as were more white voters (56 percent) than African-American (53 percent).

With regard to the problems of the city’s schools, only 15 percent of respondents cited lack of money as the cause, while 40 percent pinned the blame on poor management. Another 28 percent blamed poor management and lack of funding. Nevertheless, 56 percent said not enough money is being spent on public education, with African-American voters strongly supporting this view (77 percent).

Utah: Majority Favor Vouchers

A poll of 611 Utahns conducted for Deseret News at the dawn of the new century by Dan Jones & Associates revealed a majority in favor of publicly funded school choice, teacher merit pay, and tying school performance to financial rewards and penalties.

Some 49 percent of respondents favored allowing parents to use vouchers or income tax credits to send their children to private schools, with 42 percent opposing this view.

The Murray-based Sutherland Institute has proposed universal tuition tax credits of up to $1,000 per child to cover private school tuition, with credit-funded private scholarships for low-income families. Senator Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) told Deseret News that a tax credit bill may be introduced this year.

Wisconsin: Expand Milwaukee Program Statewide

A poll of 800 people living in the five-county Milwaukee metropolitan area conducted last fall by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that 62 percent of city residents support the Milwaukee voucher program, which allows low-income parents to use their school tax dollars to pay for tuition at both secular and religious private schools.

Support was highest among low-income residents, with an 81 percent favorable rating from those with incomes less than $11,000 a year. Strong support for the school choice plan also came from Hispanics (77 percent) and African-Americans (75 percent).

Two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) favored the idea of expanding the plan statewide to include all low-income children. Well over half of the respondents also favored expanding the plan statewide to include all children, regardless of income.