Gallup Poll Shows Lower Ratings for Public Schools

Published November 1, 1998

An annual public opinion poll reveals that while fewer Americans than ever before would award the nation’s public schools an A or B grade, more are beginning to favor taxpayer-funded access to the education alternative provided by private and church-related schools.

This year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll reports that a majority of the American public now supports the use of vouchers and tuition tax credits to cover part of the cost of attending nonpublic schools.

Last year, a majority of public school parents, 56 percent, gave A and B grades to their local public schools, though only 23 percent of those parents gave high grades to public schools as a whole. In this year’s poll, only 52 percent of parents gave their local public schools an A or B grade, and only 16 percent gave the nation’s public schools the same grade.

Significantly, and perhaps related to the decline in the ratings of public schools, more than half the American public (51 percent) for the first time now favors allowing parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school even if the “government pays all or part of the tuition.” Only 45 percent of survey respondents opposed tax-funded support for parental choice.

That represents a significant change of opinion since 1996, when the figures were reversed, with 54 percent opposing the idea and 43 percent in favor. Last year, opinion was almost evenly divided, with 49 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed.

Blacks and other minorities responded overwhelmingly in favor of choosing a private school at public expense. Their 68 percent level of support prompted USA Today to comment: “The survey is the latest indication of shrinking public opposition to spending public dollars on private or parochial schools. The idea is even becoming popular in some segments of low-income communities, particularly among urban blacks whose faith in public schools’s ability to educate them out of poverty is quickly waning.”

In fact, it was more than a year ago when the annual PDK/Gallup Poll first indicated that a major change had occurred in the attitudes of urban blacks towards the idea of government vouchers to pay all or part of the tuition at any public, private, or church-related school. In 1997, 62 percent of black respondents to the survey supported that idea, compared to just 42 percent in 1996.

When all respondent in this year’s poll were asked specifically about vouchers that would pay all of the tuition at a private or church-related school, the public was about evenly divided, with 48 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed. When asked about a voucher for partial tuition, support rose to 52 percent and opposition dropped to 41 percent. However, a majority of parents with children in public schools support both options.

When asked a similar pair of questions about tuition tax credits, a majority of respondents favored both options, with 56 percent supporting tax credits covering all tuition costs and 66 percent supporting tax credits covering partial tuition costs.

“The findings appear to guarantee that the issue of public funding for church-related schools will be a battleground for the foreseeable future,” said poll authors Lowell C. Rose, executive director emeritus of Phi Delta Kappa International, and Alec M.. Gallup, cochairman of the Gallup Organization. They noted that opposition to taxpayer-funded school choice appeared to lessen when public schools were included as one option and also when the funds provided would pay only part of the cost.

The poll, which was released on August 25, is based on telephone interviews of 1,151 adults, conducted in June. It has a margin of error of approximately 4 percent for responses involving the total sample, and a somewhat larger margin of error for responses involving smaller sample segments.