PDK poll: Charters yes, vouchers no

Seventy percent of Americans oppose the idea of vouchers – publicly funded tuition subsidies for parents who send their children to private schools. On the other hand, 68 percent support the concept of charter schools, and a majority think the U.S. should have more of them.

Those are among the findings of the 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. The poll is conducted each year and is sponsored by Bloomington, Ind.-based Phil Delta Kappa International.

The voucher result is especially interesting. PDK says it’s the strongest opposition since the poll began asking about vouchers, over 20 years ago. Just last year, only 55 percent opposed vouchers. Voucher supporters will argue that PDK is primarily an organization of public-school teachers and its results can’t be trusted. But the question in the poll – “Do you favor or oppose allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense’’ – is a straightforward and accurate description of what vouchers do.

And the poll also finds strong and growing support for charter schools, something that may not please public education advocates. This suggests charter schools are here to stay, and maybe we need to judge schools on whether they promote opportunity for all children, not how they’re organized.

Another interesting result is that 58 percent of respondents were against using students’ scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers. That’s a reversal from what PDK found just last year. And it runs counter to the support for test-based teacher evaluations in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of parents. (Education Week has a comparison of the two polls and the relevant questions).

Media coverage of the PDK/Gallup poll has focused on topics in the news: the public’s ambivalence about the growing role of standardized tests and its lack of awareness of the Common Core State Standards. “The 2013 poll shows deep confusion around the nation’s most significant education policies and poses serious communication challenges for education leaders,” says PDK executive director William Bushaw in a news release.

The confusion isn’t surprising. Most of us trust teachers, the poll confirms, but we look to test scores for assurance that schools are doing a good job. On the other hand, we hear enough about teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum to worry testing has gone too far. As for the standards debate, even people who follow it closely would probably have a hard time explaining the difference between the Common Core standards and, for example, the Indiana state standards that they may or may not replace.

Of course, the one finding that has been consistent for the 45 years of the Gallup/PDK poll is that people everywhere think U.S. schools are mediocre, but the schools in their own community are pretty good. And parents think the schools their children attend are great.

Seen up close, apparently all the schools are above average.

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