National Polls Show Majority Both For, Against Vouchers

Published November 1, 2000

Two national polls of likely voters, both conducted by Zogby American Values for Reuters and released in September, reported dramatically different levels of public support for vouchers.

A poll released on September 8 generated the following headline on Yahoo!.News: “Voters Support Public Schools, not Private School Vouchers.” But the poll released less than three weeks later on September 26 produced a quite different headline: “School Vouchers for Religious Organizations OK.”

While just over one-third (34.2 percent) of respondents supported vouchers in the September 8 poll, over half (51.9 percent) supported vouchers in the September 26 poll. While just half (50.2 percent) of Democrats opposed vouchers in the September 8 poll, an overwhelming majority (83.6 percent) opposed them in the September 26 poll.

How can different polls produce such widely different results? It’s all a matter of how the question is asked.

In the September 26 poll, the question posed to voters was relatively straightforward, and so the results are not prone to misinterpretation. In the September 8 poll, by contrast, the question bundled together three choices: support of presidential contenders Al Gore or rival George W. Bush; support of Democrat or Republican parties; and support of Bush’s voucher policy or Gore’s opposition to it. Few, if any, useful conclusions–either about vouchers or about support for public schools–can be drawn from the September 8 poll results.

Matthew Robinson has written a very helpful “Consumer Guide to Opinion Polls” in the September issue of Consumers’ Research, where he uses a 1999 Miami Herald survey to demonstrate how a loaded question can drive down the reported support for vouchers. In his Guide, Robinson turns the tables on pollsters who ask questions of consumers and provides a list of questions that informed consumers should ask about the poll results that pollsters produce.

When this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll was issued earlier this year (see “???, October School Reform News), businessman David Ziffer, an educator from Batavia, Illinois, was puzzled by poll findings that resulted in the following widely quoted comment in Phi Delta Kappa’s survey report:

“The third question asks respondents to choose the one of four strategies most likely to improve the schools. For the public, the choice seems to be an easy one. Fifty-two percent select putting a qualified, competent teacher in every classroom. Choice among private, church-related, and public schools and rigorous academic standards–the strategies being pushed at the national level–attract 19 percent and 17 percent respectively.”

Ziffer was puzzled because privatization and the imposition of standardized tests have been garnering wide public support in recent years, with about half of the population supporting each option. Now a public opinion poll essentially had reduced those two popular education reform strategies to fringe issues.

“News commentators all over the country, of course, are quoting the low 17 percent voucher response as being an indictment of George W. Bush’s proposed education policy,” said Ziffer, who then took a more detailed look at the PDK/Gallup Poll and found the answer in the design of the question that was asked:

“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?

But the four options provided are not mutually exclusive possibilities, explained Ziffer, noting that “people who support qualified teachers might also support rigorous academic standards or vouchers, or both.” The options are not really comparable, either, since they are fundamentally different in nature.

“Because of this inappropriate grouping, this question delivers us essentially no information about what the public wants to do with public education,” said Ziffer. But in the media, he noted, PDK’s analysis served the promoters of the status quo well: Vouchers and rigorous standards were marginalized, and the idea of “putting a qualified, competent teacher in every classroom” was essentially an echo of the teacher unions’ agenda and those politicians whom they hold in thrall.

“The only surprise here is that the PDK got a normally professional organization like Gallup to participate in this gross deception,” he commented.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.