Poll: Parents Are Looking for Alternatives

Published October 1, 1999

An ongoing national public opinion poll reveals that 30 percent of parents with children in public schools–up from 24 percent only two years ago–now believe that the way to improve public education in America is not by reforming the existing public school system, but by finding an alternative to it.

While most parents still favor reforming the existing system, support for this option eroded from 72 percent in 1997 to 68 percent this year, according to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools.

Among the general public, those favoring reform of the existing system remained unchanged from 1997 to 1999 at 71 percent, but support for finding alternatives grew from 23 to 27 percent. Non-whites expressed the strongest preference for finding an alternative system (36 percent). The group most strongly in favor of reforming the existing system were public school parents with college degrees (77 percent).

When public school parents were asked where they would send their oldest child to school if the government paid the tuition, 51 percent chose the same public school, 5 percent chose another public school, 22 percent chose a private school, and 17 percent chose a church-related school. If parents had the means to achieve their stated preferences, public education’s share of K-12 students would fall from its current 89 percent to just over 50 percent. (See sidebar, “Declining Share for Public Schools?”)

Even though only 39 percent of public school parents would choose a nonpublic school for their child if the government paid the tuition, a solid majority of 60 percent supported the idea of having the government pay all or part of the tuition for parents who choose nonpublic schools. Only 38 percent of parents opposed this idea, a dramatic turnaround from five years ago, when parents opposed government-funded tuition by a 51:48 margin.

Full or partial government-funded school choice is favored by an overwhelming 70 percent of nonwhites and public school parents with children.

Not surprisingly, different forms of government-funded school choice–vouchers and tuition tax credits, and whether these covered full or partial tuition costs–received different levels of support from public school parents. In no case, however, did their level of support for any option drop below 54 percent. (See table.)

Support Levels for Different Choice Options
Funding Option Public School Parents All Respondents
Full tuition voucher 54% 47%
Partial tuition voucher 59% 52%
Government-funded choice 60% 51%
Full tuition tax credit 63% 57%
Partial tuition tax credit 79% 65%

“With regard to both vouchers and tax credits, the public more strongly supports plans that would cover part of the tuition rather than all of it,” noted poll authors Lowell C. Rose, executive director emeritus of Phi Delta Kappa International, and Alec M. Gallup, co-chairman of the Gallup Organization. “The public apparently feels that parents should bear at least part of the cost of tuition at private or church-related schools.”

Groups most in favor of full or partial tuition vouchers were nonwhites (57 percent and 68 percent respectively) and public school parents with children achieving at or below average (58 percent and 69 percent respectively). The group most in favor of partial tuition tax credits was public school parents with students achieving at or below average (83 percent).

Last year, the annual PDK/Gallup poll found for the first time that more than half of the American public as a whole (51 percent to 45 percent) favored allowing parents to send their school-age children to any public, private, or church-related school if the “government pays all or part of the tuition.” This year’s poll reported similar results (51 percent to 47 percent). As recently as 1996, 54 percent opposed the idea and only 43 percent were in favor. Among nonwhites, support has soared from only 42 percent in 1996 to 70 percent this year.

The 31st annual survey, released on August 24, is based on telephone interviews conducted in May and June with 1,103 adults. It has a margin of error of approximately 4 percent for mid-range responses involving the total sample and a somewhat larger margin of error for responses involving smaller sample segments.

For more information …

The full text of the 31st annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools is available on the Internet at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kpol9909.htm.