Only 42 percent of Americans polled in the latest Phi Delta Kappa International/Gallup Poll say they are in favor of vouchers. Yet the same poll reports 57 percent of Americans say they would use full-tuition vouchers, if they were available, to enroll their children in private schools.
A new national study conducted by leading research firm WirthlinWorldwide suggests an explanation for the discrepancy: The use of negative wording in a key poll question reduces the reported support for vouchers by more than 20 percentage points.
The 36th annual “PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Towards the Public Schools,” released in August, reports three of five parents with children in public schools (57 percent) would transfer them to private schools if full-tuition vouchers were available. Only 38 percent would choose to keep their children in a public school, down from 39 percent a year ago. Similar preferences prevail among all Americans, with 56 percent choosing a private school and 37 percent choosing a public school in this year’s poll.
The question posed by the Gallup pollsters asked respondents to suppose they had a school-age child and a full-tuition voucher for use at any public, private, or church-related school. Which kind of school would they choose?
Parents with children in public schools would choose a church-related private school over a secular private school by more than a two-to-one margin (40:17). This represents a shift from last year, when the margin was less than two-to-one (38:21) in favor of a church-related private school. Among all Americans, the margin in this year’s poll was less than two-to-one (36:20) in favor of a church-related school.
As well as posing the full voucher/school preference question for the past two years, the annual PDK/Gallup Poll since 1995 has posed the following question to report on public support for the idea of vouchers: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” This year’s poll reports 42 percent of Americans favor vouchers while 54 percent oppose them, close to the 40:56 favor:oppose averages the poll has reported over the past decade.
The PDK/Gallup Poll was conducted in late May and early June using a sample of 1,003 adults. The margin of error is approximately 4 percent for responses involving the whole sample and somewhat larger for subgroups.
Critics, such as Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution, have alleged the PDK/Gallup Poll has skewed its questions and reporting against vouchers. Moe’s own opinion survey, conducted in the mid-1990s, found 60 percent of Americans favor a universal voucher system, a figure some 20 percentage points higher than the 40 percent average reported by PDK/Gallup over the past decade.
To determine if the wording used in the annual PDK/Gallup Poll could artificially lower support for school vouchers, WirthlinWorldwide in August conducted a split sampling study sponsored by the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation. A sample of 1,001 respondents was surveyed for the study in early August. The margin of error on the results from the split sample is approximately 4 percent.
Half of the respondents were asked this question used by PDK/Gallup: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense?” [emphasis added] Respondents who were asked this question favored vouchers by 41 percent, a result similar to the 42 percent reported in the PDK/Gallup Poll using the same question.
The other half of the respondents were asked the same question using neutral language: “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose any school, public or private, to attend using public funds?” [emphasis added] Respondents asked this question favored vouchers by 63 percent, a result similar to the 60 percent support for vouchers reported by Moe.
“These results demonstrate the powerful difference that a few words can make when measuring public opinion,” said Dee Alsop, chairman and CEO of WirthlinWorldwide. “Americans are less likely to support school choice when more prejudiced wording such as ‘public expense’ is used and it is implied that such funds would be used for ‘private schools’ only. Using more neutral descriptions reveals the overwhelming public support for school choice options that exists in America.”
Other findings of the WirthlinWorldwide study include:
- Most Americans (64 percent) support using a school district’s current allocation of tax dollars to pay for educating children at schools of choice.
- Both Republicans (68 percent) and Democrats (54 percent) said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate supporting school choice.
- Nearly 70 percent of African-American Democrats surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate supporting school choice.
- The total share of African-Americans surveyed who favor school choice reaches 80 percent.
George A. Clowes ([email protected])is managing editor of School Reform News.
For more information …
The 36th annual “PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Towards the Public Schools” is available online at http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0409pol.pdf.
The August 13, 2004 memo from WirthlinWorldwide summarizing the results of its National Quorum poll, “America Continues to Support School Choice,” is available online at http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/quorum.pdf.
Terry Moe’s article on the annual PDK/Gallup Poll, “Cooking the Questions?” appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next and is available online at http://www.educationnext.org/20021/70.html.
Follow-up commentaries from PDK/Gallup and from Moe appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of Education Next and are available online at http://www.educationnext.org/20023/73.html and http://www.educationnext.org/20023/77.html.
The April 2003 issue of School Reform News published a summary of the results from recent public opinion polls on school choice in an article titled, “What Does America Think?” The article is available online at http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=11785.