Virginia Shares Opinion on K-12 Education and School Choice

Published December 23, 2009

While largely approving their public school system, Virginia residents are eager for expanded school choice options, according to a new survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

The study revealed significant demand among likely Virginia voters for educational options, including tax credit-funded scholarships and school vouchers. Virginia residents’ approval of the state’s public school system—62 percent view the system as “good” or “excellent”—was unique among the states surveyed so far in the Friedman Foundation’s State Polling Series. Among the 14 states and the District of Columbia surveyed to date, only Virginia’s results showed a majority of voters support the public system.

“We have always said this isn’t an issue of public versus private,” said Whitney Duff, executive director of School Choice Virginia, a statewide advocacy organization that sponsored the survey. “While Virginians generally rate their traditional schools as good or great, they also support greater choices.”

That sentiment was echoed by Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a northern Virginia-based think tank that also sponsored the survey.

“For years, opponents of parental options have claimed that being for school choice means someone is against public schools,” said Braunlich. “As this survey shows, that’s certainly not true.”

Strong Support for Choice

Despite their general support for the public system, Virginia parents appear open to alternatives. The survey identifies a disparity between actual school enrollment and the school preferences survey participants expressed.

Approximately 90 percent of elementary and secondary students in the state are enrolled in traditional public schools, but most surveyed parents reported they would prefer an alternative option for their children, such as private schools (39 percent), charter schools (8 percent), or homeschooling (11 percent).

Braun Research, Inc. surveyed 1,203 Virginia voters by conducting live telephone interviews between October 1 and 4, 2009.

The survey revealed consistently strong support across party, region, and race for a tax credit-funded scholarship program: 65 percent of surveyed residents support scholarships for K-12 students funded by tax credits given to individuals and businesses donating to nonprofit scholarship organizations. The survey revealed Virginians believe tax-credit scholarships would give parents more power while inspiring both public and private schools to improve. The survey also showed strong support for voucher programs.Among likely voters, 79 percent support a scholarship program for special-needs students.

The proposal receives strong support from registered Democrats (81 percent) as well as Republicans (79 percent) and independents (76 percent). More than 90 percent of Hispanic and 80 percent of African-American voters favor the proposal.

Renewed Legislative Interest

Voucher proponents hope the results of the study will inspire state legislators to take a fresh look at a special-needs scholarship program proposal. Legislation introduced in the 2009 legislative session passed the House of Delegates but was defeated in a Senate committee vote.

“The survey will help improve the chances that a plan like this will go further in the future,” said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a survey sponsor and think tank. “Not only can it help raise awareness and understanding of the benefits of choice, but it presents a clear picture that it is fully compatible with what Virginians want when it comes to their schools.”

Braunlich agreed. “The voter views on a special education scholarship are overwhelming,” he said. “When four out of five voters support a measure, elected officials who oppose it run the risk of a severe voter backlash.”

No Partisan Divide

Duff said the survey also shows this not to be a partisan issue.

“The majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all support educational options including tax-credit scholarships and vouchers. We hope more lawmakers will open themselves to the idea that supporting school choice is the right move for Virginia’s children and families.”

The survey revealed support for every category of educational choice, including charter schools. Only three charter schools currently operate in Virginia, serving 190 students. Charter advocates hope the combination of the survey and the 2009 Virginia elections will help the charter movement.

“I think charter schools are going to get a real boost from the newly elected governor, increased support in the General Assembly, and a growing bipartisan foundation,” Braunlich said.

Moving Forward

School choice proponents shared the survey results with members of governor-elect Bob McDonnell’s (R) transition team and statewide elected officials and expected to provide the survey report to every member of the legislature before the 2010 legislative session in January.

During recent meetings with the McDonnell transition team, Soifer said, it was clear the report had been noticed and its findings considered. Paul DiPerna, research director for the Friedman Foundation and author of the report, hopes McDonnell will consider the full range of school choice policies.

“The quickest and most direct way to help families in disadvantaged circumstances is to design a tax-credit scholarship system or a special needs voucher system,” he said. “It will be terrific if the governor-elect and other public officials in the state consider not just growing the charter school sector but also launching scholarship and voucher systems.”

State Del. Chris Saxman (R-Staunton), founder and Chairman of School Choice Virginia, is one of the education co-chairs for McDonnell’s transition team.

“We will be making it very clear that charter schools will be pursued vigorously,” said Saxman.

Virginia Gentles ([email protected]) writes from Virginia. She previously served in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and led Florida’s school choice office.