Poll Showing Diminished Voucher Support Questioned

Published October 1, 2006

Public support for school voucher programs is waning, according to a survey released on August 22 by Phi Delta Kappa (PDK), a public school advocacy organization. But critics dismissed the poll’s conclusions, citing an anti-choice bias in the poll’s primary question about school choice.

The 38th annual poll, conducted in conjunction with the Gallup Organization, asked 1,007 adults, “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” Thirty-six percent of American adults surveyed said they support that option, down from 38 percent a year ago and 46 percent–the all-time high–in 2002.

The percentage of respondents who said they oppose school choice grew from 57 percent last year to 60 percent this year.

But Heritage Foundation education analyst and School Reform News contributing editor Dan Lips doubted the poll reflects the public’s attitude toward voucher programs.

“Research evidence is confirming what we know,” Lips said. “School choice boosts parental satisfaction and leads to academic improvement, without a doubt.

“Whenever we see school choice programs implemented, they are wildly popular,” Lips added, citing the fact that more people apply to the two-year-old voucher program in Washington, DC than the program can handle. “There are approximately two students who want to participate for every one voucher.”

Questionable Question

Critics mainly object to the wording of the question. From 1970 to 1991, PDK used a different question:

“In some nations, the government allots a certain amount of money for each child for his or her education. The parents can then send the child to any public, parochial, or private school they choose. This is called the ‘voucher system.’ Would you like to see such an idea adopted in this country?”

Andrew Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, pointed out in an August 29 Orange County Register opinion piece that in 1970, 43 percent of respondents favored a voucher system and 46 opposed it. By 1991, support grew to 50 percent, and opposition fell to 39 percent. Subsequently, PDK changed the phrasing.

Coulson believes the new question emphasizes “public expense” while failing to mention that other nations use voucher programs, which save taxpayer dollars.

He cited a January 2006 Cato Institute study concluding the District of Columbia’s voucher program saves the school district nearly $8 million.

Different Results

To examine how a question’s phrasing influences a poll’s results, the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, a school choice advocacy group in Indianapolis, commissioned a poll in August 2005 from market research firm Harris Interactive.

The Harris poll surveyed 1,000 American adults, asking half of them the most recent PDK poll question and the other half a question written to remove the perceived bias.

The adjusted question asked, “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?”

The wording made a huge difference. To the PDK question, 37 percent of respondents replied they favored school choice; 55 percent opposed it. But to the adjusted question, 60 percent replied they favored school choice, and opposition fell to 33 percent.

Ongoing Debate

Dr. Lowell Rose, who has coauthored the PDK study for the past 13 years, said regardless of how pollsters ask the question, Americans no longer want voucher programs.

“Vouchers have had a good run,” Rose said, but 50 years after the idea was conceived, they’ve failed to make significant inroads in American education.

“The public wants change in the public schools and expects that change to come through the public schools,” Rose said, noting his poll showed strong support for charter schools, which are public schools.

Rose said the Harris poll yielded different results because the question emphasized choice, which Americans value.

Charges of bias, Rose said, flared up only in the last three years, as the poll showed diminished support for voucher programs.

Coulson denied that claim, pointing out he complained about the biased wording in his 1999 book, Market Education.

Hilary Masell Oswald ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Evanston, Illinois.

For more information …

“The 38th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools,” by Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, http://www.pdkmembers.org/e-GALLUP/kpoll_pdfs/pdkpoll38_2006.pdf

“Spreading Freedom and Saving Money: The Fiscal Impact of the D.C. Voucher Program,” by Susan Aud and Leon Michos, January 31, 2006, http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=5424

“New Evidence Calls PDK School Choice Poll into Question,” August 23, 2005, http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/news/2005-08-23.html