Poll: Most Americans Would Choose Private Schools

Published October 1, 2003

A new Gallup poll conducted for Phi Delta Kappa International, whose education surveys command high respect in the teaching profession, reveals a compelling motivation for the fierce opposition teacher union leaders and most public school officials show toward school vouchers: Most students wouldn’t attend public schools if they had a voucher.

Only about one in three Americans (35 percent) would send their children to public schools if offered a voucher that would cover the full cost of tuition at a religious or secular private school, according to the new PDK poll. Even if the voucher covered only half the cost of tuition, a majority of Americans still would choose a private school (51 percent) over a public school (47 percent) for their children.

Among parents with children in public schools, 59 percent would choose a private school if given a full-tuition voucher, while only 39 percent would choose a public school. This is a remarkably high percentage in favor of private schooling, since 68 percent of those same public school parents give an A or B grade to the public school their oldest child attends. The percentage of public school parents who would choose a private school drops to 44 percent if only a half-tuition voucher were offered, with 55 percent opting for a public school.

Although the Democratic Party is firmly opposed to school vouchers, fewer than half of Democrats polled (45 percent) would select a public school if given a full-tuition voucher. Only 28 percent of Republicans would choose a public school if given a full-tuition voucher.

Losing Faith in Public Schools

These dramatic findings, which demonstrate great public demand for a wider array of choices in K-12 education, are reported–though not highlighted–in “The 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitude Towards the Public Schools” by Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup. The report is published in the September 2003 issue of Kappan.

Based on school preference data, parents’ high regard for public schools seems to have dropped markedly in recent years. The percentage of public school parents in 2003 who would choose to keep their children in public schools when offered full-tuition vouchers –39 percent–is significantly lower than the figure reported four years ago–56 percent–in a 1999 PDK/Gallup survey that also probed the preferences of public school parents when offered a choice of schools with tuition paid by the government.

Opponents of school choice claim vouchers would harm students whose parents opted to leave them in public schools, but the American public doesn’t share that pessimistic view, according to the poll. Only 12 percent of respondents thought the academic achievement of students remaining in the public schools would get worse; 26 percent thought it would get better, and 59 percent thought it would stay the same.

When asked if they thought vouchers for private schools would or would not improve student achievement in their community, respondents were evenly split, with 48 percent saying vouchers would improve student achievement and 48 percent saying they would not. PDK/Gallup reports this essentially neutral finding as “48 percent saying [achievement] would get worse,” even though respondents in fact were not asked if they thought vouchers would make student achievement in the community “get worse,” only if student achievement would or would not improve.

Gallup polled 1,011 adults aged 18 and older between May 28 and June 18, 2003.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The full text of “The 35th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools,” by Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, is available online at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0309pol.pdf.

Access to reports on the 2003 and earlier polls is available from the Web site of Phi Delta Kappa International at http://www.pdkintl.org.