What Does America Think?

Published April 1, 2003

Public opinion polling is a powerful tool for eliciting information about the strength of people’s preferences, their understanding of various issues, and their likely choices from a set of alternatives.

However, since polling involves asking questions of a small sample of people, poll results are easily compromised by poorly selected samples or poorly worded questions. Perhaps the best-known example of how decision-makers can be led astray by results from an unrepresentative sample is the 1948 Chicago Tribune headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Although sophisticated sampling procedures are the norm today, users of poll data always should check the sample to see who it represents: the American people as a whole, American voters, or voters in a particular state. Sometimes, the sample represents only a specific group, such as teachers, college professors, or union members.

Survey questions themselves also have the potential to produce misleading results, and it is good practice to check exactly what respondents were asked. For example, the following questions would produce markedly different support levels for vouchers:

  • “Would you support publicly funded vouchers to help parents transfer their children from unsafe schools?”
  • “Would you support publicly funded vouchers if they took money away from children in public schools?”

Finally, poll users should be alert to possible bias in the reporting of opinion poll results. First, “Consider the source,” since groups with a specific agenda often conduct polls designed to support that agenda. Second, the reporting itself may be subtly biased, either in terms of the language used to describe the results or in the emphasis placed on negative trends.


PDK/Gallup Poll: Big Jump in Support for School Choice

The percentage of Americans who support allowing parents to spend their education tax dollars at secular and religious private schools jumped sharply from 2001 to 2002, reported the 34th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. The poll, released last August, contains two questions about school choice:

  • Asked if they “favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense,” 46 percent of respondents were favorable, up 12 points over the 2001 figure of 34 percent. From 1995 to 2000, support levels were 33, 36, 44, 44, 41, and 39 percent respectively.
  • Asked whether they would support a proposal for the government to pay “all or part of the tuition” at nonpublic schools, 52 percent were supportive, up 8 points from the 2001 figure of 44 percent. From 1996 to 2000, support levels were 43, 49, 51, 51, and 45 percent respectively.

The American Public and Vouchers (SRN 04/03)

Poll Criticized

In recent years, the PDK/Gallup Poll has come under criticism from several quarters for allegedly skewing its questions and reporting against vouchers. For example, in the Spring 2002 issue of Education Next, Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution criticized the poll for what he called “cooking the questions” against school vouchers and then emphasizing the results that showed less support for school vouchers.

Moe’s own opinion survey, conducted in the mid-1990s, found 60 percent of Americans favor a universal voucher system, while only 32 percent opposed it. Details of the poll form the basis of his book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution Press, 2001). Vouchers, he concluded, “appeal to broad constituencies.”

AP Poll Provides Template for Voucher Opponents

ICR/International Communications Research conducted a poll for the Associated Press in July 2002, asking respondents if they supported the idea of “providing low-income families with tax money in the form of vouchers to help pay for their children to attend private or religious schools?” Some 51 percent supported the idea, with 40 percent opposed. When asked if they still favored vouchers if it meant “there would be less money for the public schools,” support plummeted to 31 percent, with opposition jumping to 60 percent. At least two anti-voucher groups have since used similar “explanatory” phrases in their own poll questions to maximize opposition to vouchers.

The August 7 AP story resulting from the poll reported in its opening paragraph that a parent’s enthusiasm for vouchers quickly fades “when he hears that tax-supported vouchers would probably drain money from public schools.” [emphasis added] The story subsequently reported, “The proposal of funneling tax money to private and parochial schools and the likelihood that would drain money from public schools, is a hot political topic.” [emphasis added]

Majority Favor Vouchers in Center for Education Reform Poll

A poll conducted in July 2002 by Zogby International for the Center for Education Reform found 76 percent of Americans favored the idea of school choice in general. In addition, 63 percent supported a specific proposal to allow poor parents to take their allotted tax dollars for education and use them to attend a private, public, or parochial school of their choosing. The highest support levels for this proposal were among blacks (72 percent) and Republicans (71 percent); a majority of Democrats (54 percent) and union members (64 percent) also favored the proposal.

Two-thirds of Blacks Would Pull Children from Public Schools

If given a choice, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of black parents would transfer their children from their current public school to a charter school or a private school, according to a survey of 1,000 registered black voters conducted last June by Public Opinion Strategies for Black America’s Political Action Committee. A majority (56 percent) gave public schools only a C- grade or lower, citing lack of discipline, overcrowding, lack of learning resources, and crime as the biggest problems with their schools.

Even though 82 percent of those polled called themselves Democrats, 40 percent said the Democratic Party has taken them for granted–up from 27 percent in a 2001 poll. The percentage of blacks who stated the Democratic Party has served them well dropped from 61 percent in 2001 to 49 percent in 2002.

A survey of 1,647 black voters during September and October 2002 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found those identifying themselves as Democrats had dropped to 63 percent from 74 percent two years earlier. Those identifying themselves as Republicans increased from 6 percent to 10 percent. A clear majority (57 percent) of those polled favor an education system “where parents get the money from the government to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice.”

Diehard Fans

“Our greatest weakness is our diehard commitment to the Democratic Party. The Democrats don’t listen to us and the Republicans don’t think we’ll ever vote for them.”
Participant at the 2003 Symposium of the Black Alliance for Educational Options

Out of Sync: Blacks and Black Elected Officials

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also conducted an important earlier study that was published in 2001 under the title, “Changing of the Guard: Generational Differences Among Black Elected Officials,” by David A. Bositis. Drawing on 1999 surveys of the black adult population (900 respondents) and black elected officials (800 respondents), Bositis reported sharp differences in attitudes between the two groups and by age within the groups.

In the black population in general, only 40 percent rated their local public schools as good or excellent, with a clear majority (58 percent) rating them fair or poor. Among black elected officials, a clear majority (55 percent) rated their local public schools as good or excellent, with 44 percent rating them fair or poor. However, among black school board officials, an overwhelming majority (71 percent) rated their local public schools as good or excellent, with just 29 percent rating them fair or poor.

With regard to using publicly funded vouchers at public, private, or parochial schools, 60 percent of black adults favored the idea, with only 33 percent opposed. While 71 percent of blacks aged 18-25 favored vouchers, less than 50 percent of blacks over 50 favored them. Among black elected officials, an overwhelming majority (69 percent) opposed vouchers, with only 25 percent in favor. While 73 percent or more of black elected officials over 50 opposed vouchers, opposition dropped to just 44 percent among officials under 40, with 49 percent in favor.

Now That I’m Here, I Want to Speak English

Just under one-third (32 percent) of U.S. immigrants believe students should be able to take some courses in their native languages in U.S. public schools, according to a recent survey of 1,002 immigrants released in January. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of immigrants said all public school classes should be taught only in English. The responses are similar to those of the general public in a 1999 survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, and Harvard University.

Although Mexican and Caribbean immigrants favored bilingual education more than European and East Asian immigrants, English-only classes were preferred by a majority of all groups surveyed. The study, called “Now That I’m Here,” was conducted by Public Agenda, a non-partisan opinion research group based in New York City.


Colorado Union Poll Discovers Opposition to Vouchers

When asked a question that focused on using tax dollars to support private and religious schools rather than using tax dollars to support the choices of parents, a clear majority (60 percent) of Coloradans opposed the idea, with only 38 percent in favor. The question, “Do you favor or oppose using public tax money to pay tuition for children to attend private and religious schools?” was asked in a poll of 651 Colorado voters conducted in February by Harstad Strategic Research of Boulder for the Colorado Education Association. The 60 percent level of opposition paralleled the popular vote against a 1998 ballot initiative that proposed a state tax credit for private or religious school tuition.

Majority Favor Vouchers in Connecticut

In an October 2002 survey of 726 Connecticut residents aged 18 and over, 51 percent favored giving parents education tax credits or vouchers to pay for their child’s tuition at a private or parochial school; 43 opposed the idea. Support was lower in rural (39 percent) and suburban (48 percent) areas, and higher in urban areas (67 percent). The poll was commissioned by the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.

Anti-Voucher Group Finds Vouchers Opposed in DC

In an Associated Press poll conducted last July, opposition to vouchers increased from 40 percent to 60 percent when respondents were asked if they would still favor vouchers if it meant “there would be less money for the public schools.”

In November, the National School Boards Association, a group opposed to vouchers, had Zogby International push the question even further into negative territory. Some 603 voters in the District of Columbia were asked if they supported “giving taxpayer-funded vouchers to parents to pay for their children to attend private or religious schools even if that means less money for public school students.” [emphasis added] This question produced 76 percent opposition overall, and 85 percent opposition among blacks.

In a May 1998 poll conducted by The Washington Post, 56 percent of District residents supported the idea of using federal dollars to help low-income children attend private or parochial schools.

Louisiana Voters Support Vouchers

Fifty-eight percent of Louisiana voters support vouchers to allow students from low-income families to attend a private school, according to a new poll released in November by the Council for a Better Louisiana. The poll, conducted by New Orleans pollster Ed Renwick, also reports 51 percent in favor of vouchers for students in failing schools, and 45 percent in favor of vouchers for all students regardless of family income.

Michiganders Favor Tax Credits and Charter Schools

In a recent poll conducted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Michigan voters opposed vouchers by a ration of 50:43. However, 67 percent supported tax credits.

In another poll of 933 Michigan residents, released in December by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, almost three out of four respondents (72 percent) support charter schools. Other findings include:

  • Support rises to 75 percent among blacks, and falls to 71 percent among whites.
  • Support rises to 79 percent among parents with children under 18.
  • Support rises to 83 percent among people aged 30-49.

A survey of Michigan’s largest charter school management company, National Heritage Academies (NHA), found very high levels of satisfaction among the 10,000 parents surveyed last summer by Wirthlin Worldwide. Parents ranked NHA in the 91st percentile or higher on each of 16 questions. Among the findings:

  • 96.3 percent agreed “My child’s school delivers on its promise of academic excellence.”
  • 96.2 percent agreed “My child’s school delivers on the promise of moral guidance.”
  • 93.7 percent agreed “My child enjoys attending this school.”

NHA manages a network of public charter schools in Michigan, North Carolina, New York, and Ohio.

Oklahomans Favor School Choice

A November poll reports that six in 10 Oklahomans (61 percent) support giving parents tax breaks–in the form of tax credits–that would help parents send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of their choice. The poll was conducted by the University of Oklahoma Survey Research Center in cooperation with Wilson Research Strategies.

Pennsylvanians Oppose Public Funds Going to Private Schools

When asked a question that focused on using public funds to support private and religious schools rather than using public funds to support the choices of parents, a majority (54 percent) of Pennsylvanians opposed the idea, with 40 percent in favor. The question, “Do you favor or oppose using public funds to pay for students to attend a private, religious, or parochial school?” was asked in a poll of 805 Pennsylvanians conducted in August and September last year by Madonna Young Opinion Research for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Those who responded favorably to the first question were asked, “Would you favor this idea if it means less money for local public schools?” In their responses to this question, almost half the initial supporters switched to becoming opponents.

Texans Divided on School Vouchers

Only 40 percent of Texans support the idea of allowing students to use publicly funded vouchers to pay tuition at private schools, with 47 percent against the idea, according to a Scripps-Howard Texas Poll of 1,000 Texans conducted last October. That’s not much different from the 41:49 split recorded in a similar poll in February 1999. But when a pilot voucher program is suggested for students attending low-performing schools, support warms to 47 percent and opposition falls to 44 percent. That’s slightly better than February 1999, when 45 percent favored a pilot program and 46 percent opposed.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected]