University of Illinois education professor Christopher Lubienski said he winced when he saw a recent Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice survey that purported to find suspiciously strong support among Indiana voters for private school vouchers.
Lubienski, who studies both school choice and research methodology, suspected the survey results would be reported uncritically — and sure enough, they were.
“The Friedman Foundation is an advocacy organization,” he said in a phone interview this week. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but they have a position. I think it’s not appropriate to represent them as some kind of objective research organization. They’re not; they’re pushing an agenda.
“Researchers are looking for illumination,” he said. “And the Friedman Foundation is looking for ammunition.”
The Friedman Foundation survey found that an extraordinary seven in 10 Hoosier registered voters favor vouchers, in which the government pays private and religious school tuition for qualified students. Other surveys find voucher support to be half that strong. The foundation also found strong support for charter schools and for education savings accounts, a new and convoluted approach to providing public funding for private school tuition.
Lubienski, co-author of the book “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools,” said the survey can be faulted for low response rates, biased questions and other issues.
“But they’re also dealing with a topic where there’s a general lack of awareness,” he said. “Survey after survey shows many parents and many nonparents simply do not know what a charter school is. They don’t know specifics about vouchers and education savings accounts. A knowledgeable surveyor can have an information advantage over the people they’re surveying and shape things the way they want.”
Another issue is the way survey results are presented. For example, the survey report leads with a finding that a majority of voters have a “negative” view of the state of education in Indiana and think education is “on the wrong track.” The implication is that the public wants dramatic change.
The survey doesn’t probe, but it’s likely many respondents are reacting against the education policies that Indiana has adopted over the past five years – policies of school choice and market-based accountability that have been pushed by the Friedman Foundation and its political allies.
The foundation also claims a majority of Hoosier voters give “negative” ratings to public schools. But it does so by classifying a rating of “fair” as negative. When the surveys ask respondents to give area public schools a letter grade, nearly half give them an A or B and fewer than 20 percent give a D or F.
Lubienski’s research finds that public schools outperform private schools when you adjust for the fact that public schools serve students from different demographic groups than private schools.
“And it’s not just my research,” he said. “This has been replicated by studies at Notre Dame, which is not exactly an anti-Catholic organization, and at Stanford. There’s a growing consensus about this.”