Poll: More Parents Want Out of Public Schools

Published October 1, 2000

The latest results from an ongoing national public opinion poll reveal that an increasing number of parents appear to have given up on reforming the existing public school system from within. Those parents now believe the way to improve public education in America is to find an alternative to it.

One in every three parents with children in public schools now support the idea of an alternative, up from one in four just three years ago. While a majority of parents still favor reforming the existing system, support for this option eroded from 72 percent in 1997 to 68 percent last year and 60 percent this year, according to the 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Among the general public, the share of respondents favoring reform of the existing system dropped precipitously from a stable 71 percent in 1997 and 1999 to just 59 percent this year. Support for finding alternatives surged among that group of respondents, from 23 percent in 1997, to 27 percent in 1999, to 34 percent this year.

Non-white respondents expressed the strongest preference for finding an alternative system (39 percent versus 36 last year), while the group most strongly in favor of reforming the existing system was public school parents with college degrees (81 percent versus 77 last year).

Paradoxically, even though parents with children in public schools were more strongly in favor of an alternative than in previous years, their support for school vouchers–which had been rising steadily since 1996–fell sharply from 60 percent last year to only 47 percent this year.

A similar sharp drop in support for vouchers–from 70 percent last year to 59 percent this year–occurred among non-whites, the group most strongly in favor of the idea of having the government pay all or part of the tuition for parents who choose nonpublic schools.

“I can’t explain it,” said poll director Dr. Lowell C. Rose when asked about the shifts in this year’s poll results, adding he had raised the issue with the Gallup Organization when he first saw the polling data. He said the sharp drop in support for reforming the existing public school system–from 71 percent to 59 percent–could be “an anomaly in the polls” that wouldn’t be resolved until next year’s poll was conducted.

“If it stays at 59 percent next year, then it’s not an anomaly,” said Lowell, who is executive director emeritus of Phi Delta Kappa International. He co-authored the poll report with Alec M. Gallup of the Gallup Organization.

Phi Delta Kappa International issued the poll report with a news release announcing that “Approval of public schools nears all-time high.” The poll itself, however, reported that less than half the Americans polled (47 percent) thought their local public schools were doing well enough to merit an A or B grade. In addition, a whopping 80 percent of respondents believe children achieve only a small part of their academic potential in school.

The 32nd annual survey, released on August 22, is based on telephone interviews in June with 1,093 adults. It has a margin of error of approximately 4 percent for responses involving the whole sample and somewhat larger for responses involving specific sample populations.

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

For more information . . .

The 2000 PDK/Gallup poll is available on the Internet at http://www.pdkintl.org, as are the poll results for 1997, 1998, and 1999.