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Six surprising things American parents really think about education
Annual Ed Next poll finds some surprises on vouchers, common core, teacher tenure, teacher pay, and more. - photo by Eric Schulzke
What do American parents really think of their public schools?

A new poll conducted by Education Next, the education reform journal based at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, found out by asking 4,181 adults their views on a range of hot button educational issues.

Some of the answers and trends are a bit surprising. There was a dramatic drop in African American support for race-based discipline reform. More Democrats than Republicans support school vouchers. Strong majorities favor spending more on teacher salaries, unless they are told what the salaries are. And enthusiasm for computers in the classroom seems to be waning.

What does it all mean? We asked three experts to weigh in on a few of the key findings.

1. Teacher salaries

Education Next has run this poll question for several years, and always gets similar results. Asked to estimate teacher salaries in their state, respondents estimated 30 percent lower than the real figure. If not told what the salaries were, 65 percent favored higher salaries, but if told the real numbers, only 41 percent wanted raises for teachers.

It's no surprise that people think teachers are paid less than they are, says Marty West, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, since there is a constant drumbeat suggesting otherwise. "The unfortunate thing," West added, "is that impression teachers are paid so poorly may make it more difficult to recruit them."

2. Opting out

Despite widespread media coverage of the opt out movement and significant retreats last year in federal education policy, the public remains solidly behind mandatory testing, with 80 percent favoring a federal requirement for annual testing. Teacher support for mandatory is much lower at 52 percent. Sixty percent said parents should not be able to opt their child out, against 25 percent who said yes.

"But you don't need a lot of people to opt out to throw a monkey wrench into the system," said Jay Greene, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The opt-outers during last year's media frenzy, he says, were from wealthier families in wealthier communities and wielded more influence than their poll numbers suggest.

"There was a large percentage in New York that joined the opt out movement," Michael Petrilli, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Fordham institute, "but elsewhere it was the same group that shows up at farmers' markets."

3. Race & discipline

A growing advocacy movement opposes school discipline that disproportionately impacts minority students. But only 21 percent of the general public favored federally mandated race-based adjustments on school discipline. Mostly notably, the percentage of black respondents who favored such policies dropped from 65 percent last year to 48 percent in 2016.

Petrilli warns against reading too much into a one year change in African American support, though he acknowledges this is quite a drop. "It's possible that people are getting nervous because they are seeing some data or otherwise sensing that schools are becoming less safe," Petrilli said.

4. Common Core

Support for the Common Core curriculum, designed by participating states to create tougher national standards, has steadily eroded. Just 42 percent now support the Common Core standards, down from 53 percent in 2015 and 65 percent in 2013. But when the poll described the essence of the Common Core without the label, support climbed to a more tenable 55 percent.

But Greene doubts that Common Core's struggles are purely a toxic label problem. "I don't think they oppose the label," Greene said. "I think they oppose the commonality of it. People's vision of high quality standards differ, and when you describe a policy they each get to imagine a different thing. The trick with common standards is to get everyone to say yes to the same thing."

5. School choice

Most people don't understand charter schools. Asked the question in the abstract, only 30 percent supported charters. If informed that charters are "publicly funded, but are not managed by the local school board" and that they "are expected to meet promised objectives, but are exempt from many state regulations," support jumps to 51 percent with 28 percent opposed.

Republicans were more likely to support charters than Democrats, but Democrats were more likely to support tax credits for donors and school vouchers. That's to be expected, since Republicans typically support decentralization.

More surprising was the partisan split on vouchers. Forty-nine percent of Democrats agreed compared with 41 percent of Republicans.

Meanwhile, 62 percent of African Americans supported tax credits for corporations and individuals who fund scholarships for private school tuition.

The declining support for vouchers has been "gradual but is now undeniable," West said, "and within that there is a counterintuitive split between Dems and GOP (that has) also grown over time."

That gap, West believes, results from Republicans by and large being at ease with their own suburban schools, while African American parents in failing urban schools are frantic for alternatives.

6. Merit pay

Fifty-three percent of the public supports basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn." And there is little partisan split on this, as 57 percent of Republicans approve and 50 percent of Democrats. In contrast, just 19 percent of teachers support merit pay.

But America is not a democracy, and both intensity and organization matter more than polls. "This has to be read in context of interest group politics," Greene said. "Just because a majority favors merit pay doesn't mean that they care greatly or that they can organize. The fact that 20 percent of teachers oppose merit pay matters much more than the majority who favor it."
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