Recent polls in two states show a significant level of support for school vouchers–publicly funded scholarships that families may use to help pay for their children’s education at the school of their choice, whether that school is public, private, secular, or religious.
Wide Support for Choice in Massachusetts
The Massachusetts state constitution prohibits school vouchers, but a recent poll revealed broad-based support for a constitutional amendment that would make vouchers possible.
The survey found 58 percent support overall for vouchers, with majority support extending across various demographic categories, income groups, and geographic areas. At least 50 percent of those polled in every region of the Commonwealth–North, South, West, Boston, and Boston suburbs–supported vouchers.
“These results indicate that support for increased parental choice in education is strong across almost every demographic category,” noted John Gorman, president of Opinion Dynamics Corporation, which conducted the poll of 500 Massachusetts residents in March 2000, for the Pioneer Institute.
Although the national teacher unions and their state affiliates are adamantly opposed to school vouchers, their opposition does not appear to reflect the wishes of union members or their families. The poll showed that 57 percent of respondents who have a teacher in their immediate family support vouchers–virtually the same margin (58 percent) as respondents with no teacher in the family.
While support for vouchers was strong (64 percent) among respondents who described themselves as conservatives, a significant majority of self-described liberals also favored vouchers (57 percent). Minority respondents favored vouchers more than white respondents by a margin of 64 to 58 percent. Respondents with children favored vouchers more than non-parents by a margin of 61 to 58 percent.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents supported making vouchers available to children enrolled in schools posting a 50 percent failure rate on the state achievement test. However, even more respondents–two out of three, or 67 percent–supported making vouchers available to poor parents without regard to the performance of school their child attends.
When asked which school they would choose if cost were no obstacle, only 37 percent of respondents favored public schools, including charter schools, while 55 percent favored private or parochial schools. When asked the reasons for their choice, respondents ranked quality of the learning environment as the most important factor.
Overall, respondents had a very favorable attitude toward school choice and its likely effect on education. Sixty-eight percent agreed that giving parents choice forces schools to be accountable to their customers and would therefore improve the quality of education. Sixty-five percent agreed that forcing schools to compete for students would give them an incentive to be more cost-effective and more efficient.
The poll has a margin of error of +/- 4.4 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
Most Kansans Favor School Vouchers
Kansas residents showed strong support for school vouchers in a recent statewide survey conducted by Emporia State University for the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union and a fervent opponent of vouchers.
The poll showed that 60 percent of 534 Kansans interviewed for the study favored a school voucher system, with only 32 percent opposed and 8 percent saying they didn’t know.
A voucher system would allow parents to direct state tax dollars to the school they chose for their child’s education, whether the school was public or private. Lawmakers in Topeka routinely reject voucher legislation, including a proposal for a pilot program submitted earlier this year by House Majority Leader Kent Glasscock (R-Manhattan) and House Education Chairman Ralph Tanner (R-Baldwin City).
Although Glasscock opposes vouchers, he supported the pilot program so vouchers’ potential as a school reform could be evaluated.
Although lawmakers keep rejecting vouchers, the level of public support for school choice in Kansas appears to be increasing, in keeping with national trends. In a February 1994 poll conducted as part of an ongoing statewide evaluation of Kansans’ Attitudes Toward Education (KATE), 53 percent of respondents supported adoption of a voucher system where parents could send their child to any public, private, or parochial school.
Kansans’ increasing support for vouchers is gratifying to the state’s leading voucher advocate, Representative Kay O’Connor (R-Olathe), who was literally standing alone when she began her crusade for vouchers in a state that, in the words of the late Quentin L. Quade, was “not the most pregnant place for school choice.” With the results of the KNEA survey to back her up, O’Connor now thinks her fellow lawmakers are out of touch.
“They are not representing what the public wants,” she told The Wichita Eagle.
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.