Floridians Say Competition Will Improve Public Schools

Published October 1, 1998

A new survey shows Florida voters have a definite interest in the idea of public schools operating in a competitive environment, with 60 percent of respondents saying that competition will improve public schools.

The poll also shows that, by an almost two-to-one margin, voters favor allowing families to use public funds at the public, private, or parochial school of their choice. However, there was a reduced level of support for school choice when it was described as using “vouchers,” and an increased level of support when the term “student scholarships” was used.

“This poll indicates that Florida families believe the state should allocate its education dollars as scholarships that follow the child,” said Patrick Heffernan, president of the organization that sponsored the poll, Miami-based Floridians for School Choice. “This isn’t about one type of school being better than another,” he added. “It’s about who should decide what is best for each child.”

Among the poll’s findings:

  • School choice is not considered a threat to public education, with 60 percent of respondents agreeing that competition with private schools would improve public schools;
  • School choice is seen as a self-determination issue, with 79 percent of respondents agreeing that parents have the basic right to choose the educational setting they consider best for their children;
  • School choice is viewed as being particularly helpful to children from low-income families, but choice also is seen as helping everyone;
  • School choice is most popular when used as a solution to overcrowding and low-performing schools, with almost two-thirds of respondents supporting choice to address those circumstances.

When asked about their reaction to a proposal that would enable families to direct public funds to “the school of their choice, whether public, private or parochial,” a total of 48 percent of voters responding to the survey said that they strongly supported (32 percent) or supported (16 percent) the proposal. Only 26 percent opposed or strongly opposed the idea, while 22 percent were neutral.

“Florida has long provided tax support to students attending public, private or religiously affiliated universities,” noted Heffernan. “Floridians for School Choice is committed to the ideal of extending this positive practice to elementary and secondary schools in a gradual, fair and orderly way.”

Heffernan acknowledged that the v-word for school choice, vouchers, had “picked up a great deal of baggage.” A total of 43 percent of respondents said they were less likely or much less likely to support school choice if it were described using the word “vouchers.” Use of the term “student scholarships” produced a total of 58.5 percent of respondents saying they were more likely or much more likely to support school choice.

Five hundred-fifty likely Florida voters were surveyed in July. The poll, which has a 4 percent margin of error, was conducted by the New York polling firm of Dresner, Wickers and Associates. It was commissioned by the Collins Center for Public Policy at Florida State University and the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute.